E-Content: Are Librarians Being Overtaken on the Information Highway?

Library Hi Tech News

ISSN: 0741-9058

Article publication date: 1 July 2000


Lefebvre, M. (2000), "E-Content: Are Librarians Being Overtaken on the Information Highway?", Library Hi Tech News, Vol. 17 No. 7. https://doi.org/10.1108/lhtn.2000.23917gac.002



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2000, MCB UP Limited

E-Content: Are Librarians Being Overtaken on the Information Highway?

Madeleine Lefebvre


The Information Highways 2000 Conference and exhibition was held at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre 27-29 March. Formerly called the Canadian Online Information Summit, this annual conference is sponsored by Information Highways magazine (www.informationhighways.net). The theme "e-content/start here!" was aimed at professionals looking for ways to ensure that the Internet content they use or produce is high quality. Seventy-six speakers addressed 40 sessions.

The conference attracted a diverse group from the legal, information, and library professions, government, and business. The exhibition featured a variety of content producers and online service vendors. The "Ba ­ the Knowledge Management Pavilion" was an interactive learning space on knowledge management, named after a Japanese word that roughly translates as "shared space". The Faculty of Information Studies, University of Toronto, and the Xerox Corporation were instrumental in this project (www.fis.utoronto.ca/kmi.ba).

Keynote Speech

Brian Segal, CEO of Publishing and Online Services for Rogers Media, opened the first day with a keynote speech on convergence, context, and content. He described the Internet as a biological phenomenon ­ one of continuous growth. As it grows, he said, we feed it. It has a momentum and energy of its own ­ no one owns it. It takes different forms and shatters the status quo. It is not a community but a platform for communities. It represents a massive investment, as 50 percent of Canadian homes are now wired for the Internet.

Convergence is a huge driver of the Internet, Segal continued. Technology is a huge driver of convergence. The ability to access the Internet in a wireless environment increases the mobility of information. Investment too is a huge driver in convergence. There is a focus on integration of networking platforms and delivery of content. He went on to enumerate the types of convergence now in vogue. The first, he stated, is between the desktop and the Web. Personal software is migrating to the Web, bringing "stickiness" with it (i.e. personal information). The number of times one goes to the Internet will increase dramatically over the next year. It will have a significant impact on the way we do business.

Segal pointed out that there is also convergence between narrow band, broad band, PC, wireless, and television. Web content needs to be operable and customizable for different platforms. Convergence is also occurring between traditional broadcasting and Internet-provided broadcasting. In June 2000, Rogers Media will offer WebTV from the same cable box as cable television. Thus webcasts and broadcasts will come through via the same box, for an enhanced entertainment experience.

Much greater bandwidth is emerging, Segal added. There is convergence between the virtual and real worlds, resulting in quite unpredictable innovation. He used Matt Drudge as an example of a single voice who can be heard by millions via the Web. The virtual world, however, has little relation to the real world: tell the computer anything, Segal challenged, and it believes you.

Segal went on to ask if the virtual world is following the real world, or is it the pathfinder? The big retailers, such as Sears and Walmart, are moving to the Internet. A Web address requires communication, community, content, direction, personalization, platform interoperability, and commerce. It must be able to retain customers. They will demand a much more integrated service for themselves. The browser becomes an active participant in the housing, finding, and control of our information.

In Segal's view, there will be provision of much greater support to the teaching function. This is not to say that teachers will be replaced. Rather, the Internet will become a significant supplement to the teaching process. He believes that copyright will have the same dimensions in the virtual world as it does in hard copy. Encryption development is leading towards an improvement in policing. A lot more court cases will emerge, he added, citing the MP3 issue as an example.

Segal's thoughtful presentation reflected his past experience as a senior academic, and his comments were well received.

Canadian Library Association Sessions

The Canadian Library Association sponsored two major sessions at the conference. The first , "Internet Search Forum ­ Top Trends in Internet Research", was an informative, panel-driven review of the best tools available to an Internet searcher. Moderator Gwen Harris began by reviewing four aspects of the Web: the public Web (now estimated at 1.5 billion Web pages); the invisible Web ­ i.e. the content not picked up by search engines; vertical portals (vortals) ­ deep sites on a particular topic; and the commercial Web.

Search engines are getting smarter, faster, and more diverse, Harris stated. She asked her panel to discuss their views of the trends. Rita Vine, an Internet training consultant, stated that, in her experience, "real people" use Yahoo!, or learn from their friends. Content convergence is becoming a big trend (www.infoseek.go.com/, for example), where content delivery from a user's institution is married with corporate information such as Hoover's (www.hoovers.com). Another recommended site was www.corporateinformation.com.

Excellent new real search engines are appearing, such as www.google.com and www.NLResearch.com. These engines do not rank order search results in the old way: instead, they offer rank analysis, filtered to folders. A negative trend Vine notes is the "crafty metatagger", whereby tags commandeer sites to skew the results. A basic search on the topic of benchmarking shows a good example of this practice.

Rod Chapman, president of Knowledge Navigators, offered the information that 17 new domain names are registered every second. A trend towards specialty niche-based engines allows searches to be limited to type of site. One might request only .edu sites, for example. Part of this trend is that some companies are now cataloguing only very narrow areas. Chapman sees a trend where more people are behind the scenes, with more cooperation between content providers. He believes more people play a role in assisting in the process of searching. He rated www.google.com highly, as well as www.oingo.com, for their meaning-based searching. He also referred to the growth in bandwidth. Lucent Technologies has developed a new fibre optic which carries 3.2 terabytes per second. This development will allow for more streaming video/audio, as well as more text-based searching.

Stephen Rodger of Kroll Associates was unable to attend the session, but he submitted notes. According to his notes, he sees a growth of content, and size of search engines. He also saw better controls for metatags, with some search engines now hostile to them. Link analysis with "off the page criteria" is another development. He also cited the growth of narrow, vertical portals. Industry or community-specific sites, also known as affinity portals, are growing. An early example was www.ivillage.com. www.bigchalk.com is designed for the K-12 community, while www.LibraryHQ.com is a corporate-sponsored librarians' portal.

Vine gave the opinion that vortals are "a saviour for the end-user". She pointed out that users are often unaware of the differences between a commercial and a non-commercial site. In her view, the best vortals are created by librarians and hobbyists, or others with no commercial interest. She cited www.lii.org and www.ipl.org as excellent, reliable examples. Vortals are less dependable when commercial interests come into play. Vine pointed out the concept of "blocking out" competitors in advertising, where, for example, a Barnes and Noble banner might block other online booksellers. She considers that the potential is great, referring to www.verticalnet.com as an example of an industry-based portal which itself houses 55 vortals. She advised adopting a "wait and see" strategy.

Vine also recommended www.brightgate.com for fast updates on metasearchers. While she used to rely on them, she now recommends them less, but will consider them later in the search process. Software-based tools such as Bullseye and Copernic are rarely known to the end-user. Their best use, in her view, is for regularly repeated searches. There are downloadable free versions (www.intelliSeek.com and www.copernic.com) but they are full of advertising. Both come in full versions at a cost.

Chapman, on the other hand, uses metasearchers at the front end of a search as a way of determining where the best results come from. He admitted, though, that they are "a bit of a blunt instrument". When a metasearcher can search 300 engines and 600 databases, there is a need to cherry pick, as precision suffers. Harris referred to an informal library school study, which showed that 22 out of 28 searchers found new, good hits when using a metasearcher as a wrap-up tool.

Chapman likes www.webforia.com, a business-related site that has categories for organizing information and reporting it to a targeted community. As the size of customized files can grow quickly, e-mailing them can become difficult, and necessitate the breaking down of information into more manageable pieces.

The panel then turned to products that pick up changes on chosen sites in a specific topic. Netminder (www.netminder.com) is widely used. Northern Light (www.NLResearch.com) has a search alert feature, which was popular with the speakers. Chapman also likes Mind-it (http://mindit.netmind.com), which he finds useful for monitoring companies of interest. Company Sleuth (www.company.sleuth.com) is good for extensive company information.

Such products are now becoming more sophisticated, and the quality of the content has improved, said Vine. While they are very useful for competitive intelligence, they can be hard to turn off, and she questions whether the effort is worth the result.

On the topic of customization, the panel agreed that no public customizable resource is at a level that truly delivers the information individuals want. There have been vast improvements in recent months, but nothing perfect has yet emerged, despite a huge industry preoccupation with this activity. www.individual.com and My Yahoo (go to www.yahoo.com and click the "Personalize" button) were cited as good examples, although even they were considered to contain "a lot of clutter". Chapman mentioned that he dreams of a site which offers a reference interview, taking him through his search as a reference librarian would. Octopus (www.octopus.com) is paid by the sites it sends you to; thus the quality of the search may be questionable. Katiesoft (www.katiesoft.com) is a useful tool for bringing online bank accounts together and viewing several sites simultaneously.

The panel went on to discuss the huge developments in the commercial Web. A concept-based engine, WebTop (www.webtop.com), allows users to drag and drop documents or text from their desktop (even e-mail) into Webcheck to search for related information. DialogSelect (www.dialogselect.com), a pay-per-view service, demonstrates that the unit of sale is now the article, not the magazine. The Electric Library (www.elibrary.com) offers an "all you can eat" approach. Monopolies in the information retrieval field are starting to crumble, the panel told us, as commercial services abandon information professionals as their market in favour of end-users. There is a move away from thesaurus-coded content to flat text. Services are now marketing to smaller organizations, which perhaps have no library, but have an intranet which desperately needs content. Such services are now licenced directly to companies, with no analysis and evaluation by librarians. Thus the first service to approach an organization is usually the one which gets the contract. A benefit of the move to the end-user, according to Chapman, is that searching should get easier, with less use of arcane search terms, such as Dialog, used.

Vine cited the National Library of Medicine's PubMed (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/PubMed/) as a cleverly and reliably indexed search tool. In her view, end-user pressure is moving such well-organized sites away from search terms to keywords, which may compromise the quality of results. Harris pointed out that Oingo (www.oingo.com) can "disambiguate" the end-user's meaning. Entering "jaguar", for example, will result in a prompt to choose options between a luxury car and a large cat.

Search engines will not disappear, concluded Vine. Librarians should, however, steer end-users away from them. The overwhelming number of results makes it hard for an end-user to discern quality. The role of the librarian is to be the quality-filtering agent. She expressed concern about the rise of Web "gurus", such as www.webhelp.com and www.looksmart.com, questioning how one determines the quality of the answers given. In Chapman's view, this is infant technology. He believes search tools will get smarter, more precise, and focus on relevancy ranking, adaptive filtering, reference interviewing, and agent technology. Harris referred to www.autonomy.com, a commercial site, asking whether this is a personalization agent or an indexer ­ the lines are blurring.

Faced with a vast amount of information in a relatively short session, an audience member asked how one keeps abreast of the search tools. TheCyberskeptic's Guide to Internet Research and BiblioData's Price Watcher Newsletter (http://www.bibliodata.com) were highly recommended by the panel. Other useful sources are www.researchbuzz.com; http://www.Internet.com; NewsBreaks at http://www.infotoday.com; and The Scout Report at http://scout.cs.wisc.edu/index.html. A good source for consumer trends and cross-platform operability information is www.cnet.com. www.speechbot.com is an interesting site, which offers an audio search of radio programs for speech recognition. Librarian Gary Price's Direct Search (http://gwis2.circ.gwu/~gprice/direct.htm) was highly praised.

Vine's advice was to stop teaching users Boolean searching. Introduce a simplified search strategy, she advised, focusing on a maximum of six top-quality vortals. Users will return when they need more information. She believes we have a marketing job to do to simplify the process for the user, while adding value to the search through analysis and content. In closing, she recommended the Librarians' Resource Centre, a tool developed by Margaret Gross for the Toronto chapter of SLA (www.sla.org/chapter/ctor/toolbox/resource/cover.htm).

This comprehensive session would have been well served by a printed or overhead list of URLs. Audience members frequently asked for the spelling of recommended sites, while at other times the pace of discussion was too fast to capture the many references. The room set-up and an unfortunate podium effectively blocked half the audience from seeing the speakers. Such basic housekeeping details should have been addressed, rather than being left to weaken the impact of a very useful session.

The Blind Man and the Elephant

"The Blind Men and the Elephant ­ Why Everyone's Perception of the Internet is Wrong", was a lively keynote address by Andy Nulman. Former CEO of Montreal's Just For Laughs International Comedy Festival, and self-styled chief executive Retina of Eyeball Glue (www.eyeballglue.com), Nulman gave a provocative and witty presentation to close the first day, using visuals in vivid colour and comic-book fonts to emphasize his irreverence. The Internet is like a fridge, he said: "You put stuff in, you take stuff out, and it's really, really cool". He pointed out the semantics of the Internet: we don't "read" it or "watch" it; we "use" it. Referring to the Internet as a community of people, Nulman praised Jeff Bezos' term, "dot.communism". The thrust of his remarks was that the Web is so vast that the key to successful Websites is creativity and people (his title refers to the fable in which several blind men describe an elephant by feel). Speaking to the businesses represented in the audience, he emphasized that the customer "wants it perfect and now". Stressing the infancy of the Internet, he urged the audience to be creative and open-minded to its potential. The old paradigm of computing, he added, was "the geeks in the basement". His new paradigm is "the artists in the basement".

His advice to businesses seeking to develop a Web presence is to brand everything (his actual words were "brand your own butts"). Consider what you stand for, and get recognized. He cited his Website, www.thefunniest.com, as an example of one designed to grab and keep attention. A key hire in this endeavour is a publicist. His second maxim was to "unbore yourself". The Internet is a showbiz and sales medium, he added, and e-content is in effect an infomercial. Convergence with entertainment creates "intertainment". Success in e-commerce depends on customer loyalty and enthusiasm. With echoes of Marshall McLuhan's "the medium is the message", Nulman added that colour and typeface are all content. Drawing comparisons between the television and the Internet experience, he quoted Scott Sassa's (president of Turner Entertainment) theory that, while television is a lean-back experience, and the Internet a lean-forward experience, the goal is a lean closer experience. Similarly, he added, Steve Jobs talks about switching on the television, to switch off mentally. The business of the future, Nulman concluded, is "to be dangerous".

His third maxim was to "relate". In another nod to McLuhan, he reversed his theory to say, "We impose content of the old on the form of the new". Too often, the content is not designed for the Internet, but is a carryover from print, and often inappropriate. Chat rooms have become the modern day office water cooler discussions about what was on television the night before. Programs are offering simultaneous opportunities on the Web for further involvement. What the Internet needs, he added, is "a breakout star", with whom we can all relate the medium. He questioned whether this person might be Stephen King, for his e-book ventures, pointing out the major coverage he has received in Time magazine and other media.

Nulman's final piece of advice was to individualize, but, he cautioned, it must be with precision. Mere registration is not individualization. Seth Godin's book, Permission Marketing, likens individualization to dating, where slowly one gives more information as trust develops, and thus a clearer, more detailed picture of the individual emerges. Nulman gave a humourous account of trying to locate a copy of Alan Abel's classic text, Don't Get Mad Get Even, in a hurry (he went directly to one of the online bookstores). The site, automatically tracking the buying interests of its customers, offered Mein Kampf and The Turner Diaries as suggested further reading. Real individualization, Nulman added, involves real people, whom he calls "infomediaries", who provide customer support by Internet and telephone. He foresees a day when a premium will be put on face-to-face interaction.

The session ran late, and at this point, over-eager security staff shut off the power, leaving Nulman literally in the dark. He handled the discourtesy with good humour, but in a sense it underlined his point about good human interaction. No time was left for further questions, or I would have asked why he never once mentioned the role of a service-oriented library and staff in meeting his information needs, and in essence, being the "infomediaries" he advocated. No doubt a librarian would have quickly located a copy of Abel's book for him, without a "helpful" referral to Hitler's writings.

Sharpening Negotiating Skills

The other Canadian Library Association-sponsored session was "The Art of the Deal ­ Sharpening Negotiating Skills". Stephen Barringer, director of business development for the private sector at CGI, offered a lucid guide to general negotiating techniques, focusing on the concept of win-win. Recommending James Hennig's books, he stressed that negotiating is about power, and that knowing where the power lies equates with control. Power can be manifested in several forms, he explained. For example, are there alternatives to this negotiation? What role can perception play? Can you leave the table and walk out? What power comes from your own legitimacy and authority within the organization? How much risk can you take? How much commitment and knowledge do you have, of both the subject and the techniques for a successful negotiation? Power can also take the form of reward or punishment, deadlines, and relationships.

Preparation is the key to a successful negotiation. Do your research, assemble your team, set your goals, know your best alternative, know your requirements, and know how much the negotiated item is worth to you. Learn the techniques for getting and giving concessions and impasse handling. Share enough information to make the negotiation worthwhile. Learn the right questions to ask. Similarly, know the counter to each negotiating technique, so that both parties are aware of each other's negotiating ability. Negotiate in good faith, using win-win principles, Barringer concluded, or relationship power will be lost.

Barringer's overview was followed by Juanita Richardson, a consultant who frequently negotiates large business application licences. Her advice was to know where you are on the organizational power grid, by comparing your level of influence to your information budget. She recommends asking the vendor where you rank on their client list; what is their scope and strategy (i.e. what is their commitment to customer relationship management); and what is their budget for product development.

The contract should be reviewed by legal counsel. It should not be boilerplate, but tailored for the specific agreement. Read the licence and all the attachments. Understand the terms and any rights granted, watching for clauses that impose burdens. Review any limitations closely, and ensure reciprocity where warranted. Review the term of the licence and terms of termination. If negotiating a licence, you are probably not acquiring any rights to content. Note any restrictions on authorized users or authorized access. Note too any limitations on applications or copying.

Richardson also advised clearly establishing your requirements. For service, you will need to identify how many users there will be, what is the cost per user, what is the definition of the product or material (the vendor may have a different idea of what constitutes the product); and, finally, do the definition and any restrictions meet your needs? Another group of requirements to be determined comes under the heading of functionality. Does the product meet all your needs? How easy is it to use? Does it do what the vendor claims? All promises should be written into the contract. Legal terminology should also be checked. Are the parties correctly identified? Is the right to licence spelled out? Are the terms fully disclosed, and disclaimers clearly outlined? Are the terminations rights mutual? Is the controlling law acceptable (for example, New York state law presiding over a contract for a Canadian university)? Are the terms of indemnification acceptable? Is the limitation of liability acceptable?

Richardson also stressed the importance of a win-win negotiation, because in reality, she said, the vendor is also restricted by licences for the content, so in a sense both parties are on the same side. To achieve success, know what you want; know what you are prepared to give up; know the strengths of your position; and know these same issues from the supplier's perspective. Her final advice was to do your homework and go over the contract with legal counsel.

Anne Church, a consultant who negotiates licences on behalf of health care consortia, was the final panelist. Such consortia, she stated, may be diverse, and it is common for some members to have no formal library structure of dedicated library staff. Most, however, have an academic library as their lynchpin. She listed the types of measures used for consortial pricing (concurrent users, beds, professional staff, total staff, number of sites, operating budget, population served, and print subscriptions), adding that concurrent users are becoming an obsolete measure as usage patterns are 24/7. Defining full-time equivalents can also be a difficult task as the health care industry is highly populated with casual and part-time workers. The number of sites can be hard to determine without a clear definition of what constitutes a site. The operating budget may not be a good measure as it depends largely on the staffing component.

Church pointed out the complexity of managing consortium expectations. The key, she said, is to know your community, keep communication strong, to build consensus. Understand the legal parameters of consortium members. Expend considerable efforts to achieve agreements, as their presence increases both access and usage. Church also echoed Richardson's view that the vendor's needs should be appreciated, too.

Points to remember in consortium purchases, Church emphasized, are that one size does not fit all and funds are limited. The multiple approvals needed can slow the process, but they still save time over single negotiations for each member. Church's final words were that consortial purchasing is all about working together, keeping strong lines of communication, and trust.

Housekeeping Issues Detracted from Conference Content

As a general observation about the conference, housekeeping issues weakened the overall quality. Some full-day sessions were targeted to specific communities of interest, such as government service, and knowledge management, which caused confusion among the general registrants. Within the timetable, some unadvertised sessions were by invitation only, and a lunch sign led to an undignified scramble at the door as general delegates were refused entry by convention centre staff. The sessions I attended all began late; thus there was little time for audience questions ­ the worst example being the discourtesy afforded Andy Nulman, who was caught mid-sentence as the lights were switched off.

The conference attracted a diverse group from the legal, information, and library professions, government, and business. The librarians present should have taken Nulman's comments as a wake-up call that they are not making themselves heard by the other groups represented at the conference. They could make themselves indispensable, if Nulman's and other speakers' views are correct, yet the library-related sessions, on the whole, were not well attended. There was also an assumption among delegates that information comes at a cost, which is perhaps why the library is not where they look for the service and the information they need. It was clear that the library profession still has a major marketing job to do to, to position itself in the face of rapid online developments. Yet, it was equally as clear that there is an important human role for librarians to play, if they are prepared to seize it before it passes them by.

Madeleine Lefebvre is University Librarian, Saint Mary's University, Halifax, Nova Scotia. madeleine.lebebvre@stmarys.ca