Journalism, Librarianship, and Astrophysics


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I recently attended the annual conference of the Special Libraries Association (SLA). The closing session, a panel discussion moderated by Judy Woodruff, was particularly timely with its combination of content creators and users.

Robyn Meredith, senior editor at Forbes, expressed her concerns about the future of her profession. I heard the echoes of info pros and librarians everywhere: "We are journalists because we were trained in journalism," she said, which sounded frighteningly like me in the 1980s, stamping my foot and saying, "We are librarians because we have a Master of Library Science degree."

As SLA examines what info pros are valued for within their organizations, it has become clear that the value of info pros is our ability to provide strategic information when, where, and how it is needed. It's not what we know or what we do with what we have access to-it's that we can add value to the entire decision-making process. An M.L.S., like a journalism school degree, is a fairly reliable indicator of interest and commitment to the profession. But neither degree automatically translates into value to the marketplace.

Meredith was particularly scornful of "citizen journalists"-they're just bloggers, after all. The equivalent phrase in our world would, I suppose, be citizen librarian. Some public libraries have been fighting the movement toward an all-volunteer (i.e., nonprofessional, "citizen") library staff for years. Most info pros have learned to focus on adding value to our services in order to maintain our professional status and to ensure we are viewed as critical to our organizations. Had we not had these challenges years ago, we might (still) be in the same situation journalists face: watching our profession struggle with its identity and direction.

We info pros learned early on not only how to address the "It's All on the Web for Free" syndrome but also how to incorporate the web into all aspects of our research ... to co-opt it. Yes, Google eliminated all those ready-reference questions, so our research is more complex than it used to be. But we took the web up as a resource rather than a competitor. Sadly, I remember reading a column from the editor of the Denver Rocky Mountain News shortly before it folded, lamenting the fact that, since 2002, the Rocky and The Denver Post had lost $100 million in classified advertising revenue, due largely to craigslist. Just as newspapers unable to adapt to the pressures of the web are imploding, journalists who define themselves by what they do now rather than by the skills and talents they have will find the job market challenging.

The other two panelists at the SLA session-John R. Patrick, internet industry big-thinker, and Neil deGrasse Tyson, the country's most entertaining astrophysicist-offered the perspectives of information users. The seeming overabundance of data isn't the problem as much as it is developing tools to sift out what is relevant for us. The value of blogs is that they are created by people who are sifting through data and highlighting what's most relevant to them.

Tyson pointed to the 4GB of data streaming to us from the Hubble Space Telescope every day. There is an office devoted solely to taking that information and making it accessible to the public, in the forms of images, videos, educational resources, and multimedia displays. And, he suggested, this is the role of info pros-to provide guidance in filtering the relevant information and to provide the tools to interpret the information. The value we add isn't solely in our ability to retrieve the information but to then make it relevant and usable to a client or a user.

Tellingly, no astrophysicist (or even mere rocket scientist) would be put off by an amateur describing herself as a "citizen astronomer." I suspect that Tyson would grab her by the arm, put her in front of the nearest computer, and show her all the Hubbell information she can tap into to feed her passion. In fact, Tyson noted that in 2005, the Bush administration would not fund Hubble repairs. The loudest complaints came from the general public-the "citizen astronomers"-who eventually persuaded Congress to override NASA's decision. There may be a lesson in there for journalists, and for us info pros. If we get in front of the citizen enthusiasts, we can lead them. If not, we run the risk of being trampled by the torch-wielding mob.