Today’s Information Professional

by Rich Gazan, LIS Class of 1998

“You’re studying to be a what?”

Forgive them. You may have to cycle through several job titles before your well-meaning inquisitor understands. Information professional. Archivist. Online searcher. Database designer. Librarian. Whatever you choose to call yourself , the field of information science has the potential for a level of social and cultural impact undreamt of as little as a decade ago.

We’ve heard about the information revolution, seen the statistics on how many people now access online information as part of their everyday lives, but still the field is in the midst of metamorphosis. No one knows what shape it will ta ke, but it’s certain to change fundamentally. Tomorrow’s graduates will be well-positioned not merely to react to these changes, but to create them. What the role of an information professional eventually evolves into will be largely up to you.

And after years of budget cuts and questions about the need for public and school libraries, their strategic importance in creating an information literate society at the grass-roots level is being recognized as never before. Libraries provide services to children and youth, literacy programs, public meeting places, and serve as focal points for community involvement. Libraries preserve culture. Now corporations and governments are waking up to this reality and beginning to put dollars where their ideals are.

But won’t the Internet eventually make all information self-service and doom library school graduates to minimum wage jobs at used bookstores?

Evaluate the relative usefulness of these two exchanges:

“Where can I find a good Thai restaurant?”
“North America.”

“Where can I find a picture of a sheepdog?”
“On the Internet.”

On the Internet. How casually this phrase is used to dispense with any request for information makes many librarians uneasy. But it only takes a few experiences with Web search engines to discover that after the gee whiz factor ebbs, yo u’ve plowed through the first ten of several hundred thousand hits and still haven’t found what you’re looking for.

That noise you hear on the Web isn’t the death rattle for librarians and information professionals – more like opportunity beating its fists against our door. It is only now dawning on information providers and database companies that t o make their products better, they can’t think like computer scientists. They need people who understand user needs and the process of information seeking. People who can blend the strengths of new media with core cataloging and indexing concepts libraria ns have been mastering for centuries.

Libraries are adapting their services to changing demands. Old job descriptions are being rewritten and entirely new positions are being created, many by recent graduates who come in with new skills. But the meat-and-potatoes of library work hasn’t changed: interacting with people, taking into account their social and cultural backgrounds, helping them articulate, seek and fulfill their unique information needs. You’ll manage people and information, evaluate print, CD-ROM and Web resou rces, all to provide your patrons the best service and information you can offer.

The information industry, including database vendors and indexing/abstracting companies, also attracts its share of graduates. This branch of the profession changes with each product cycle and this is a challenging choice for many.

Still, a modern library education is a passport to transcend traditional library boundaries. From art museums to motorcycle factories, every organization needs its records intelligently ordered and easily accessible. As technology has b ecome more complex, this role has moved up the corporate ladder from file clerk to database administrator to the newly coined Chief Information Officer.

But the rewards of riding the new frontier of information science are not restricted to career development. There is a great social need for those who find, evaluate and disseminate information. Through online and CD-ROM technology, peo ple worldwide can easily and inexpensively share information and collaborate for the betterment of humanity. Modern information professionals conceive, design, create, collect and distribute these electronic scrolls, always with the goal of making the inf ormation as accessible as possible.

In schools, universal Internet access is rapidly becoming reality. Library media specialists have evolved beyond mere guardians of expensive audiovisual equipment to take a more collaborative role in the service and education of library users. This educational aspect of librarianship is perhaps its noblest goal: not just to understand people’s information needs, but to cultivate within them the skill and passion to find and evaluate information for themselves.

Libraries have always been among the first to embrace new technologies. Remote access to computers, public workstations, distance education and the Internet itself have all been advanced through the efforts of librarians. But these are past accomplishments. There has been no time in history when those with a library and information science education, whether or not they work in a library setting, are in a position to profoundly influence the future.

So if people wrinkle their noses when you declare your intention to enter the field of library and information science, be patient. They’ll understand soon enough.