The Market for Information
As librarians, we traditionally know a lot about information and its patterns. But now our knowledge is becoming more and more valuable to the wider world for one very important reason. As Librarians we have been watching the way people use information for a very long time. We watch people go through the process of discovering that they need to know something. We watch them figure out what might be suitable to answer this need. We watch them go about locating the answer. We watch them sift, sort and assimilate the knowledge that might hold the answer. And we watch them move on to their next information challenge once they have found their answer.
How many of you can relate to this dialog for example: Client asks Where are the books on aircraft? We respond with an intuitive signposting activity. We say Our reference section on aircraft is over here - and we guide them to the exact spot and say here they are. Then the Client ponders on the selection. We then give advice on attributes of the information to help the client select the item most likely to give them the kind of information they are after. We say There is a whole range of different types of information here. There are encyclopaedias of aircraft types, directories of aircraft manufacturers, histories of the evolution of flight, and maps of air fields. Client may pick up a text and flicks and flicks and flicks. We then give advice on that items information structure and it's use. Something like - OK in this book, there is an index of manufacturers at the back, but the content is arranged alphabetically by aircraft type etc. And so on the dialog goes until we have satisfactorily assisted our client to find the information most useful to their needs.
It's exactly this scenario of skills that are making librarians valuable in the world out there today - particularly for digitally and screen based information where established patterns of information design are still being formed. Our skills can help information designer s to direct people to the information most likely to assist them, help readers make the right choice from a menu of items, and make the information intuitive to use and assimilate. Let me tell you how I got into a life outside libraries quite by accident:
When the internet came to town in the mid-nineties, I was working for a progressive federal department who wanted to be one of the early adopters of the internet. Departmental management went directly to the top IT end of town and got the best IT firm to make the website. The imported contracted technical team beavered away for weeks on end taking direction on content from the secretary of the department and finally produced one of those lovely grey backgrounded blue text type sites that read like a departmental annual report - you know, the type of things the departmental secretary loves to talk about, missions, goals, hierarchies, bureaucratic lines of power etc. Not very useful, not very usable, but beautifully coded!
A colleague and I who were in different publishing units of the department at the time, were naïve enough to suggest to the Departmental secretary that more could be done to deliver useful and valuable information about what the department did via the internet, rather than just paint a picture of our activities. We suggested the internet should even deliver the publications, not just say we had them, and that the internet should deliver the information people were always ringing up to find out about, not just say we answered a thousand calls a year on these topics.
Well, you know the proverb of the squeaky wheel - in next to no time we were tasked with the responsibility to overhaul the site, plus, instigate a devolved framework that meant people who were producing the information - that is the publications people, the public affairs and library sections - were responsible for ensuring that information was produced for the web site in a timely manner. This was a novel concept back then when IT sections of departments had control over everything that faintly resembled anything technical. It was a tough call, but we did it, and our department was one of the first to have a user-focussed entry to a departmental website. We had looked at our department from the outside, and made navigation and information discovery routes into the content based on what our audience required, and not on how the department was structured. During this time, I needed to buy in assistance to html the many publications I had waiting to go onto the site. Since you just couldn't look up HTML publishers in the yellow pages at that time, my colleague and I visited a number of people.
We saw graphic designers (who could produce marvellous graphical displays for onscreen consumption that wouldn't download in a lifetime of Sundays).
We saw techo HTML programmers (who could produce wonderful code but didn't have a clue about usability, navigation and information architecture and structure) and we saw a range of other professionals and then finally came to the conclusion that there was a niche in the publishing world for people to design information for the onscreen environment that other average type people could really use. And so this is what I do now. I use my knowledge and skills in information to help design content that is usable and useful to the reader in a screen-based environment.
I often think of the book model and how our traditional images of linear information don't apply to the digital world. A book is discrete. You can tell a lot about a book just by looking at it - it's thickness indicates something to you, it's covers and type of coverings give us more clues. It has a clear title page, connections to the larger organised world of information through the verso.
We recognise that a table of contents will usually appear at the front and an index at the back, and that these things are good finding aids when they have pages numbers attached to them that actually reflect the content on the pages in the book. Once inside the book, we navigate through it by recognising that the content is divided into chapters, and that chapters have headings that organise the content into themed groups. Headers and footers, page numbers and the like are other aids that allow us to understand where we are in relation to the rest of the content. There might be summaries of the content, side text or highlights or boxed text that point out important content, and there are references and footnotes for additional information. The quality of the writing and printing are also good clues.
We intuitively know how all these things fit together to make a package of information we can understand. However, how does onscreen content work when many of these signposts are missing? What and where are the clues to help readers assimilate material from screen based information? Most people, particularly in the IT industry, do not have the skills, time or interest needed to understand and effectively structure information in ways that readers understand.
Librarian skills are invaluable to those companies like mine, who work with already created information, and whose expertise is in re-crafting a clients information so that it works just as well or even better on a screen than it does in the static medium of paper. Now here's another area where librarians can use their existing skills in the world outside libraries.
Librarians are effective information finders. We look at a suite of knowledge, in a book, on a shelf, in a catalogue, and know what combination of skills we need to put together in order to use that suite of information effectively. We know we use different searching and discovery skills for different types of information, and even the different mediums - for example we use different skills to search an online database than we use to search a card catalogue.
Many people who are creating information today, are unaware that readers bring different search and discovery skills to a screen based interaction than they do to a paper based interaction. How many of us have had frustrating experiences searching and locating web based content, and yet can effortlessly locate that proverbial needle in a haystack piece of information in a library full of books? Authors and publishers are finding out that you can't just take a piece of knowledge structured and written for paper and plonk it on a screen and expect readers to approach it the same way as they would have on paper.
A good example of this is some recent work we did for dept of defence in the lead up to y2k. Defence had many groups monitoring the upgrading and testing of technology in preparation for the y2k. They had databases full of information, but unfortunately, the people managing the databases were kept busy answering the phone all day because people kept ringing them up to find out how y2k ready their section or whatever was. What they wanted from us was a better way to keep up with the dissemination of y2k reporting. These databases were big long lists of things, and you could report by equipment type, by defence location, by preparedness etc. But these databases were so big, with so much information in them, that the big picture was really hard to grasp.
The answer they were looking for was not just to give all and sundry access to the database. When they asked us for a solution, we went to work in discovering the types of questions people were asking and how they wanted to use the information. In the end, we devised a database to web application for their intranet that was based on geographical location and showed y2k readiness on a whole range of levels as you drilled down through a series of maps.
Each defence installation was plotted on a map and each piece of equipment was given either a black flag for y2k ready or a red flag for y2k not ready. When we loaded this onto the defence intranet, there were two immediate benefits. Everybody could firstly quickly identify a defence location by clicking initially on a state map, then region map, then area map right down to where the installation was located. And then secondly they could simultaneously notice the y2k status of the state, region, area or installation as they clicked down the hierarchy by the colour and amount of flags that were displayed. It was so simple in design, it broke down volumes of complex information into useable bite sized chunks. Librarians are amongst those in the international arena heading this push for 'usable' information designed specifically for the screen. Librarians and other information specialists like editors for example, are becoming more prolific in their advice relating to organising, structuring and writing for screen based works.
From my experience, information professionals are saying things like: we know people scan a screen for keywords rather than read paragraphs of text so if writing for the screen, please use writing techniques that emphasise rather than hide ideas - like bullets, short paragraphs and emphasised words. I know Librarians are saying: look at your access schemes when devising an onscreen document.
If you are using headings from your document as menu items, make your headings clear in their intent. If your are using classification schemes, make them consistent and uniform - choose schemes readers are familiar with such as alphabetical arrangements, chronological arrangements or topic related. Arrange your information in recognisable hierarchies - broad and shallow or narrow and deep. But be consistent. And remember that not everyone is looking for the same thing, or searches in the same way.
A librarians advice on how people might approach the information, ultimately assists in the provision of the correct type of information design. We know that readers require different functionality from their onscreen material depending on if they are using known-item searching techniques, exploratory searching techniques or a full scale comprehensive search. My company helps organisations make digital virtual libraries by scanning their information captured in hardcopy and releasing it into a digital environment, usually on cd rom.
As well as keyword searching, our virtual libraries use traditional library finding tools such as author, title and subject lists, and use hyperlinking to connect the content with the lists.
This way, we can cater for those people who prefer to exercise their known searching skills in a familiar environment as well as cater to those advanced users who understand and can effectively use Boolean searching techniques in a digital context. Librarians make good usability advocates. The science of usability engineering is developing a prominence as it requires specialists with a sound knowledge of the way readers interact with a body of knowledge. Usability engineers, and the most famous and outspoken in recent times is Jacob Neilson, ensure information is accessible - on the macro level of information design - that is the way the information is intellectually structured and physically designed on the screen, right down to the micro level of knowing which fonts are good screen fonts and which combination of design techniques can assist an onscreen reader overcome all the bad things about reading on a screen - the flicker, the emitted light and the screen density. As documents online become longer, ease of information discovery becomes more and more important for the retrieval of the information. I consider myself to have the skills of a usability engineer through my association with librarianship. Librarianship is more about accessibility of information these days than it is with the guardianship of knowledge. Usability is all about making information discoverable. Librarians have the ability to contribute to the development of usability standards by thoughtfully developing and building on traditional information techniques.
For example, I am currently lobbying the concept of a digital verso as a standard for onscreen publishing. The verso has seemingly been forgotten in the race to publish onscreen, I think because the people doing the publishing have not been aware of it's value.
When people publish they usually think of the content - the chapters and the text. The verso - which connects the content to the larger information world and contains things like the isbn, publishing details and copyright information, is just as important to an onscreen document as it is to a printed one.
Indexing is another areas where our skills are in demand. Related to this is metadata application. A government department recently said to us that they preferred our company because we had librarians involved with metadata application. This organisation didn't believe that an automated approach to metadata preparation was sufficient. And in order to achieve a consistently high quality of metadata, human intervention particularly by librarians as information specialists, was essential. Many librarians working in federal government departments will be aware of the government's online strategy. I see this as a truly magnificent opportunity for librarians to use our information management skills outside the library environment and assist our organisations to deliver information effectively via the web.
Believe me when I tell you many people out there are still coming to terms with the governments online strategy and metadata, and that they simply don't know what they don't know. An offer of a helping hand, or a briefing paper to management might just be the profile building opportunity you need at a time when it matters the most. There are so many other things that make the information marketplace exciting for librarians. Developing standards is one. I have been involved in the development of onscreen publishing standards for the forthcoming commonwealth style manual. Traditionally the domain of graphic designers and editors, the publishing team recognised the value an information specialist could bring by casting the perspective of information use on the process of publishing. Structuring data is another. The exciting future for web delivered information is xml and sgml. Structuring and tagging in markup languages requires similar skills as understanding marc records.
If you have a technical leaning, structured data development is going to be a field of rapid change and exciting outcomes. This will see information truly liberated from it's linear containers.
Structuring information will give even more specificity to information retrieval, and radically change our perception of information construction.
I think the document or book as we currently know will fade in lieu of material produced on the fly from a data store in response to a specific enquiry.
For example, currently, I have a book on indexing and a book on html. I am not really interested in every word in both these books, infact, I probably am only interested in about 25% of each. But I had to buy the whole of each of these books just to get the bits of information I wanted. In the not to distant future, when the content of both these books will be in an xml data store, I can dial up and request information on search engines, and each of those portions of those two books will be returned to me, integrated on the fly, into one single complete text.
This is the future I want to make. I'm glad to be part of it today.
Last modified: 2001-04-30