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TECHNOLOGY HAS ENABLED RESEARCHERS in unions, trade groups, and professional organizations to shift in focus toward using information and away from collection and distribution. The expansion of the Internet and online database services, combined with powerful computers and software, is behind the shift to primary research (using information) at the American Federation of Teachers (AFT). Areas of greatest impact include improved access to data and vastly improved distribution of union-related research. The dominance of accessibility over quality has given union research more visibility, but it has also increased the exposure of antilabor and antiteacher forces. Easy access to electronic information enabled many AFT departments and staff to continue to do their own research. The Research and Information Services Department itself plays a significant role in promoting cost-efficiency as a coordinator of database access. As can be expected, the cost of access to networked information has outpaced the growth in both AFT staff and the rate of inflation combined, while the number of library personnel has remained constant.
THE EVOLUTION OF RESEARCH AND INFORMATION SERVICES AT THE AMERICAN FEDERATION OF TEACHERS
Unlike our nation's great universities, where libraries and information technology support scholarship and teaching as the central mission of the university, the library and research functions of a labor union generally work toward a much more practical end: helping elected leaders of the union and staff serve union member locals and organize new ones. At the American Federation of Teachers, technology has taken research and information services in slightly different directions. More powerful computer hardware, as well as better access to data and the Internet, have enabled researchers to participate more directly in the political and intellectual debates over the public institutions in which AFT members work. Technology enabled information services to become more efficient by providing services to a growing national headquarters without expanding staff. Financial resources devoted to both research and information services have grown more rapidly than the union itself.
This article identifies several familiar themes regarding research and information services. In both areas, the emphasis has shifted from collecting and distributing information to knowing where to get information and, in the case of research, how to use it. Researchers in unions, trade groups, and professional organizations are now able to focus more on using information or data (primary research) in addition to the traditional focus on collecting data and information (secondary research). Information services now does much of what union researchers did a decade ago regarding the collection and distribution of "other people's" research. Although the ease of access to electronic information allowed many AFT staff and departments to acquire information on their own, the attendant costs of this information have increased rapidly. In order to improve efficiency, information services now play a growing role in managing database accounts and coordinating training from vendors across departmental lines.
When studying the evolution of the information services or the function of research in modern labor unions, it is often difficult to distinguish between cost-savings enabled by technology and general financial cutbacks due to a declining membership base. The American Federation of Teachers, however, is a relatively new member of the labor movement and a growing …