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61st IFLA General Conference - Conference Proceedings - August 20-25, 1995

Developing New Information Products: A Revised Role for Librarianship in Advanced and Developing Countries

Paul Wasserman


This paper presents the case for the adaptation of the role responsibility of librarianship to include efforts leading to the development of needed new information products. The argument describes two forms of activity political and intellectual. After specifying the characteristic features of each form, suggestions are given for training issues focussed upon identifying elements useful in identifying needed new information tools. Such enhancing of librarian performances is seen as a promising potential route to furthering the image of the occupation in developing and developed information cultures.


We live in a time when the occupational role of librarians and the services afforded by the libraries in which they serve, are in ferment. Transformations in the definition of the librarian's responsibility are everywhere being catalyzed by heightened societal expectations for information access, driven by dramatically enhanced electronic capabilities and the universally widening perception of information as the strategic element in rational decision making and problem solving. The consequence has been a fundamental reassessment of the underpinning of traditional library service which has built on the satisfaction of client needs through reliance upon the material contained in the collection of a specific library.

Historically, the definition of the librarian's role has been to assist in the location of materials [usually in published form] from the stock of the library in which the librarian performs. But as libraries become more and more linked through systems and networks, and as they exploit databases at remote sites, there is increasing realization that effective client service requires the exploitation of sources which transcend the limitations of the individual library and draw upon what is available from other institutions and systems, thus powerfully extending search capabilities. Yet even when the search goes beyond the local library's resources, the conceptual basis of information service remains fundamentally unchanged. Because what is involved is the locating of extant material for the user. And the process ends when the user is given what has been sought, or informed that the search has been concluded and the client has been given what has been found, or told what could not be found. In some uncommon instances, the client may be furnished the names of institutions or knowers who may be possible further avenues for seeking of required additional information. But in all this, the reference process remains essentially reactive rather than proactive.

In developed societies, exhausting the possibilities of what may be available from all possible sources, frequently yields valuable and pertinent materials or indications of their availability. But when no meaningful results are yielded through the search, the librarian assumes no further responsibility and the client is left without satisfactory resolution of his or her needs. Because of well developed systems of information access, both in conventional published forms and electronic files, the success rate may be reasonably good, but there are no meaningful statistical measures of success rates compared with failures in search results. In developing cultures, because of the greater paucity of national or local conventionally produced reference sources (directories, bibliographies, sourceworks) and of electronic files as well, there would be greater likelihood of reduced success levels in identifying relevant materials for users. The question is, of course, how can librarians in both developed, and in developing contexts, where the needs may be even more crucial, adapt to more active role definition which transcends that of carrying out and providing the results of successful or unsuccessful search strategies on behalf of clients? There would appear to be two feasible strategies for adapting the classic role definition.

1. Exploiting the Political Process

One form of role transformation is by extending the responsibilities of librarians to include political behavior on behalf of clients. For this to happen, when it is clear that information tools and existing resources are inadequate in alleviating a specific requirement of users, librarians would express themselves by calling attention to needed information products which may not be available, may be obsolete, or are not provided in suitable formats or with necessary timeliness. Using the political process, implies the mounting of concerted efforts by librarians, as the societally designated responsible agents of information access, in order to influence external bodies. Practically speaking, such efforts can have the purpose and effect of influencing external groups to take cognizance of and thus to fill unmet or unsatisfied needs of library users. As vociferous spokesperson for adequate information resources, concerted library expression has the potential for provoking into action governmental bodies, publishing companies, professional associations and other appropriate generators of information tools.

Now this is not an unknown form of professional expression. It has been exploited in the past in some cultural contexts and it has achieved concrete results. And where it has succeeded it has resulted from the realization among some in librarianship that no other group is so sensitive and committed to furthering the information requirements of the user group. For where else in any society is there a continuing and sustained level of performance delivery tied specifically to information needs of users? And who but librarians are so committed to helping and working on behalf of these users? Furthermore, what other occupation is perceived as so powerfully committed to the service ideal that when it expresses itself it speaks in the interest of the community, rather than for self serving purposes?

No other occupation works so closely with information seekers, for in every library setting, whether the public, academic, school, or special library, the reference librarian is deployed on the firing line, constantly facing a stream of information inquiries. And the effect is that these persons are most closely attuned to the needs not being met by existing information resources. It is not such a long step from understanding what is needed to collaborating in their professional conclaves and then to representing vociferously in public forums what information gaps exist and how they can be remedied by responsible action at governmental, publishing industry, or professional society levels in a given society. The form of active librarian political expression has been manifested many times in the past. In some countries, it takes the form of committee efforts on behalf of members in professional library groups working with representatives of the publishing industry, or through legislators, or with government agencies and departments, all of whom hold some responsibility for information collection and dissemination.

If such expression is a strategic element in the active role performance of some librarians in developed societies, the potential for even more significant results in developing societies appears to be even more promising. For one fundamental difference between the developed and the developing society is clearly to be found in the level and degree of information availability. It is strikingly ironic that not uncommonly, librarians and their clients in developing societies, will have far easier recourse to every manner of information about, on and from developed societies, while far less in the form of information resources will be available on the indigenous society. As this is so, librarians who are sensitive to such information imbalance, are strongly positioned to function as levers for change in their own cultures. Since they know what directories, bibliographies, indexes, databases and the like, exist, and are accessible elsewhere in the world, they can cite clearly and specifically, illustrations and examples of what is needed in their own settings and express such needs to appropriate bodies through concerted and vocal expression. For what greater irony can there be, than for a committed librarian to have ready access to directories of researchers and research institutions active in a more developed distant country while having no access to the same type of intelligence about his or her own society?

Of course a strong library infrastructure in a developing country is an essential element of its information organization, but once this is in place, it needs to be followed by the building of the arsenal of bibliographical resources on, for and about the indigenous culture so that those seeking information of every type within the country may enjoy the same access about their own conditions which is to be found in more developed societies. And by first identifying this fundamental societal requirement, and then by engaging in political efforts to remediate the problem, librarians hold the power to adapt their role behavior and thereby assume a far more crucial, active and essential posture.

2. A More Active Intellectual Role Response

The second form of prospective adaptive performance may be a somewhat more radical change in the basic reactive paradigm of the occupation. The means to do so lies in capitalizing on the intellectual potential of those in the occupation who would accept roles in designing and developing new information products and services which do not yet exist, but which are clearly necessary in fulfilling client needs.

Clearly inventiveness and innovation have been displayed by individual librarians many times during the history of the occupation. Indeed, classification schemes, cataloging systems, indexes to periodical literature, microformats, and advanced information systems, have all been brought into being as the consequence of the imagination and creativity of forward looking and pioneering librarians. Yet in more recent times, during the transition of the occupation into a more bureaucratically bound occupational class, the ritualization of performance rites has tended to create a more rigid self definition among practitioners which devolves more exclusively upon searching rather than inventing.

Built into the know how of many who perform in librarianship are unique types of substantive and structural knowledge which are perhaps unique in the culture. For librarians often specialize in subject areas, research and operating fields, and the information requirements of disciplines and technologies, and so are especially sensitive to the range and types of information inquiries which arise and are being continuously modified through the changing conditions of the general culture and specific subject fields. Reference work, moreover, affords an individual a special form of sensitivity to the way in which information is organized and controlled and endows those who practice it with valuable insights into the ways in which useful constructions might be made in order to build necessary, new and workable information tools and systems.

Perhaps because traditional education for librarianship and much of library practice has focused on existing published sources, little insight or curiosity has been aroused among most librarians about how information products and services are conceived, how their costs are derived, what the realities of the marketplace for their use may be, what is involved in the pricing of information products and services, and many like considerations. What seems to be lacking is a fundamental revision of the conceptual basis for the occupational responsibility that is, acceptance of a revised role definition for librarianship, or at least for some of those who practice it. Librarianship might well be redefined to include responsibility for more than simply providing information to clients based upon what can be found through searches; it might also embrace the responsibility for actively devising and planning needed new information products and services if they were to valuably contribute to client requirements.

The furtherance of such a paradigm for librarianship has long been a basic tenet of the personal philosophy and experience of some number of librarians who attempt themselves, or by catalyzing colleagues and associates, to contribute to the information structure by fashioning and generating new information tools where they are needed. This is reflected in their carrying out editorial roles and in their assumption of responsibility in the planning of particular reference and information tools and in implementing strategies for bringing forth new products taking the form of classification systems, indexes, sourcebooks, directories, bibliographies, databases, and the like.

There have been and continue to be innumerable instances of creative contributions among librarians, but the general perspective of the occupation is that proactive and inventive performance is a kind of aberration, a unique phenomenon outside the accepted definition of the librarian's occupational role. This sells the profession short and conditions it to a less favorable image among those from whom status and reputational esteem are perennially sought the client group. For the image of an occupation is the reflection of how it is perceived by those for whom it exists. To the extent that librarians serve but seldom create, limits are set on the stature and esteem to which the occupation aspires.

To some degree there has in recent years been a growing realization that involving librarians actively in the preparation of reference tools and databases is appropriate to the occupational character of the profession and this has lead to the offering of some seminars and workshops in which the development of information products is the basic element of consideration. Such training sessions lead to the identification of needs and gaps by specifying the best means for the identification of new information product opportunities by treating the sources of new ideas for developing needed reference tools, including such factors as: a. personal experience and observation of distinct user unmet needs; b. studying the question and answer process in the library; c. interviews with experienced information personnel about gaps and needed tools; d. inventorying superseded and outdated, but still important information products; e. studying and analyzing the limits of the information structure of a discipline to uncover needed and absent resources; f. extending a locally created library product to a wider audience of potential users; and g. careful analysis of unanswered questions and consideration of what might be fashioned which would lead to the resolution of such questions.

But there are a host of other important questions which arise and are brought into focus during such workshops. An instructor primarily serves as consultant and resource person, building upon practical experience, demonstrating examples and illustrations, and encouraging those who participate to work assiduously in the identification of new product opportunities. And seminar participants themselves serve as effective sounding boards, as reactors and critics who encourage and reinforce where appropriate, or discourage ill conceived ideas. Naturally not every project conceived by seminar participants will be brought to a successful conclusion. But out of such involvement comes the recognition about the genuine feasibility by librarians drawing upon their backgrounds and subject knowledge to personally make a new product contribution and every such seminar participant emerges as a far more sophisticated and analytic critic of new information products and services than would otherwise be the case.

In short, the role definition of the occupation of librarianship appears ready for reevaluation. What is proffered here is a potentially timely means for expanding and adapting the responsibilities of some in the field who may be ready to assist the profession to move to the next sophisticated stage in its evolutionary progress.