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THIS ARTICLE WILL ARGUE, PERHAPS IN CONTRADICTION to the discussions which precede it, that providing end users with more information does not really address their problems and, in fact, does not even identify them. Users want information in order to do other things, and this means that they must not only have the best information, but also not have it buried in quantities of other information which may be wrong but are more likely to be irrelevant and thereby misleading. Most importantly, our users need some assurance that what they found is the best that could be found. Dealing with these concerns does not require access to more information, it requires a process to sift the chaff from the wheat. Computer programs used by the end user cannot do this, but computer use by qualified information intermediaries on behalf of, and to protect, the end user can. This growth of specialists has been consistent for any field in which both complexity and options have increased, and the suggestion that computers can be programmed to do their own self-filtering effectively is at best naive. Peter Drucker has predicted that the most important profession in the next century will be knowledge workers, and knowledge workers are not the same as computer systems specialists. The most competent ones are likely to be reference librarians using sophisticated hardware and software, tools which the end user does not know how to use.
This entire issue of Library Trends deals with knowledge discovery or data mining, a relatively sophisticated application of electronic databases. However, most database use is not sophisticated, particularly through CD-ROM and the Internet. This puts databases increasingly into the hands of people who are ill-equipped to search them, but who do not necessarily know how ill-equipped they are. Unfortunately, the impression has been created that anyone can find not only the right information but also the "best" information by simply sitting down at a computer terminal. Librarians have unfortunately promoted and encouraged these misconceptions by their own insistence that end users search for themselves and to stop bothering the "busy" librarians. In this exercise, end users may or may not find the "correct" information, but they may also find huge quantities of information which are, for them, irrelevant or misleading. End users will then use whatever they found without ever knowing because we refuse to use our expertise to help them. Based on my own experience over the past half century in dealing with a wide range of information problems and services, I will use this article to point out the problems inherent in such simplistic and abdicative approaches.
I made the decision to become a librarian during my junior undergraduate year as a chemistry major in 1948. Part of the reason was my growing awareness that I probably faced very little of a future as a chemist except by working in a laboratory, and I didn't really want to do that for the rest of my career. The other reason came from the growing realization that neither chemistry students nor chemistry professors really knew how to find information in a university library. They would find "something" and make do with that. Whether they had found the best information or all of the correct information they would never know, although they would never admit that they had not found everything they should have found. Students were occasionally caught in that deception, faculty never were. All research reported from the literature was claimed to be complete, and that claim was simply accepted as true. At the time, I knew virtually nothing about librarianship, except for the observation that most librarians were humanists and had not the vaguest idea what chemists were talking about, but that they discouraged such conversations in any case. Researchers "were supposed to" find their own information. If faculty, but particularly students, were helped in anything but the most simplistic directional assistance, we were simply encouraging sloth. While I did not really know what librarians did, because I don't ever recall using my high school library, I was blessedly unencumbered by that ignorance. I only knew what I felt librarians should do, at least for chemists, although I learned quickly that it also applies to other fields. Librarians could and should find the correct information to meet the specific needs of each patron, in part because these individuals were untrained and incapable of finding it for themselves, but primarily because they would rarely if ever admit that shortcoming. Students sometimes get caught in providing incomplete and erroneous information, particularly if the instructor only assigns what he or she already knows. Working professionals are rarely caught in that deception, and the higher their level of prestige and importance, the safer they became. Indeed, if what they claimed to have found from their "research" was totally unintelligible to others, their claim to brilliance was safest of all.
I had no way of knowing then how correct my totally unsupported hypotheses were but, in the almost half century since becoming a librarian, almost equally divided between operational management and administration in the area of scientific information and the academic pursuits of academic research, teaching, and administration, I have learned the truth of my assumptions many times over. What has surprised me, and continues to surprise me, is the passionate unwillingness of many, if not most, librarians to assist the foundering (even if unconfessed) client to find what is really needed to meet an information need. Thus librarians who could carve out, particularly in an age of computerization, that which geometrically magnifies the amount of information (both useful and useless for the individual need), the crucial role of what I call information lifeguards and Peter Drucker calls knowledge workers, stubbornly refuse to do so. They prefer to handle administrative and clerical details, to build "gateways" to …