The Information Drought


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The other day, my sweetie taught me a new word: virga (defined as "wisps of precipitation streaming from a cloud but evaporating before reaching the ground"). We see a lot of that here in the Rockies—long trails of rain in the distance that never get to us, tantalizing us in the middle of yet another summer of drought.

But, info-nerd that I am, this got me thinking about how we information professionals disseminate knowledge and information to our clients. We have all kinds of great resources, and we do our best to make everyone in our organization aware of what we can do, but it sometimes gets lost in the deluge of information available. Even more challenging is finding the stakeholders within the organization who aren't even aware of the services we can provide. To use the virga analogy, these people are on the ground and not even aware of the rain that is falling but not reaching them. 

Marketing our information services is always a challenge; I don't know about you, but my graduate degree in information science didn't turn me into a marketing whiz. But with the possible exception of some in the public and academic spheres, libraries are not viewed as inherently mission-critical to an organization. 

OK, I'm over that, although I do, in fact, believe that info pros are what keep the earth spinning on its axis and prevent the fall of civilization as we know it. (Cue the Librarian Avengers page on "why you should fall on your knees and worship a librarian," or perhaps we should schedule "A Day Without a Librarian.") However, we still have to identify and educate the people who are our prospective clients, even though they don't realize it yet. 

One approach that I have found useful is to demonstrate my value by establishing the equivalent of a Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval for econtent. Think of it as a way to finally get the informational rain to make its way to the parched soil of ignorance and mere Google searching. And it's a nice tool for demonstrating our skill in evaluating the best of the information available on the web. 

One of the things I love about Furl.net—the social bookmarking service now owned by LookSmart—is that I can use it to create an annotated webliography, updated on the fly. I insert a small piece of JavaScript code onto my "Mary Ellen Bates' Certified Cool Web Resources" page. Visitors to the page will see an updated list of annotated links that I have Furl'ed (or just one subset of the pages I've saved on Furl). It's easy to maintain and update, not to mention a slick way to share a collection of websites. 

Two of my other favorites for getting information into the hands of our knowledge-parched clients are Rollyo and Gigablast's Custom Topic Search. Each allows you to create what is essentially a customized search engine designed for the needs of your clients. Instead of encouraging them to "just Google it," send them to your website, and show them, for example, the "Best Engineering Resources on the Web." Yes, it takes a little while to identify said best resources on the web, but the payoff is that you can challenge your clients to a search-off. They use a general-purpose search engine, and you use your best-of-the-web search engine. You will have far fewer search results but are much more likely to retrieve reliable, relevant pages. Bingo—another clear demonstration that they'll get what they want if they go to the expert. 

And while we're thinking of new ways to get the information into the hands of the people who need it, consider building an internal version of a social networking service. No, you're not creating a space for users to rate their friends or troll for dates. But a private version of LinkedIn or Friendster could be a powerful tool for surfacing the hidden expertise of employees, identifying someone who previously worked for a competitor or prospect (imagine how useful it would be for a national accounts salesperson to know the best approach for marketing to the CTO of a prospective customer), and building networks among employees dispersed throughout the country. 

One of the most significant impacts of the web—at least for info pros—has been the disintermediation of information. Our clients are far less willing to ask us for help in finding information; they want to be able to find answers electronically, without any assistance or guidance from us info pros. Our mission is to seed the information clouds so that the critical content makes it all the way to the clients who need it.