28 February 2006

Building Bridges to Information Products and Services

Carol Tenopir [School of Information Sciences, University of Tennessee, Knoxville, USA] recently gave the Miles Conrad Memorial Lecture to the National Federation of Abstracting and Information Services. Her topic was Building Bridges to Information Products and Services. The name of my company is Information Bridges International, and was derived from a desire to connect librarians in small or one-person libraries to the resources they need, to their customers, and to the larger library world. Tenopir talked about the need for all of us to do the same. Here are just some of her comments.

“My career...has been about building bridges—bridges between librarians and publishers; bridges between students and knowledge; and bridges between research and practice. The more I think about it, the more I realize that the work librarians and information industry professionals do is about building bridges to some degree or helping people build their own bridges—particularly bridges between users and the information they need.

“The most important lesson from building bridges is to know traffic patterns or know your users. The majority of information users just want tools and technologies that help them get their work done better and in the most convenient fashion. They do not want to change their work habits unless it is obviously more convenient for them. Systems that help people get their work done better will be readily adopted.

“Desktop access of electronic journals for faculty, links to full articles from indexes, systems that integrate information into updateable spreadsheets or graphs, cut and paste citation systems for authors and students, integration of dictionaries and glossaries into products for kids, medical reference books downloadable to a PDA for physicians, newsfeeds accessible via cell phones, instant messaging or email reference for college students, are all examples of ways that product features help people get their work done and are adopted quickly by a sizable group of the intended population.

“Knowing your users leads directly to realizing that lots of different onramps are needed to content. Staying a step ahead of users’ needs (and remembering that the new doesn’t usually completely or immediately replace the old) is the challenge. Behaviors do change somewhat over time and after familiarization—but often just for more and better uses of the same material and systems. New behaviors are a result of becoming familiar and comfortable with electronic sources, technologies, and possibilities. One solution does not fit all and the allowable time between enhancements is growing shorter as people’s attention span and patience shortens, as expectations heighten. We are building expectations at the same time we are meeting them. No matter what you do it will never be enough in today’s climate of change and high expectations.

“Sometimes bridges to our ultimate users need a little help, however. A bridge between the information system provider and the ultimate end user that has the supporting structure of the information specialist is still often stronger than the direct bridge. Many have been trying to build the direct bridge for decades and it just doesn’t hold up as well as expected. This is one of the hardest lessons for the information industry to learn. For over twenty years I’ve heard new CEOs at online companies come in with the “revolutionary” idea that there are only thousands of librarians, but millions of end users. But librarians make the overall collection decisions and make sure the bills are paid and, more importantly, provide help so people can make the most effective use of information products.

“Finally, sometimes the fastest route is not the best. Sometimes a researcher just wants to enjoy the ride and is not in any particular hurry to arrive—in these cases a ferry (or a hot air balloon) works just as well as a bridge. Serendipity, berry-picking, and browsing are not the most efficient ways to get information, but they are part of the research and development process. Researchers need time to think and develop their ideas. Information sources should help them do that.

“In conclusion, don’t let libraries or information companies be bridges to nowhere. Not paying attention to users needs is the surest road to nowhere, and a fancy design with no meaningful purpose or content, no quality, no rigor behind the interface will in the long run lead to nowhere. Subject experts in the workplace want robust and useful content in addition to easy to navigate and effective systems to get them where they are going. They want to get their work done faster and better and all of us in this business are in the business together of making sure that happens.”

These excerpts will also appear in a future issue of The One-Person Library: A Newsletter for Librarians and Management and are taken from Tenopir's column for Library Journal, Online Databases, 17 February 2006. Used with permission.

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