Virgil in the Library
By Laura Dawson
IFLA Journal, Summer 2002

Since we human beings began collecting information, we have needed someone to manage our ever-growing body of knowledge. To decide what is worth revisiting
and what isn't. To decide what will help answer our questions, and what will not. Traditionally, information has been housed in specific locations; where, with the right knowledge and skill, it could be counted, described, organized, and stored.
But as more and more information assumes an electronic form, it has no specific location - it exists everywhere at once, is accessible to everyone or no one. The Internet has made information stewardship a more crucial role than ever before. If the world of information is as chaotic and unreliable as Dante's Inferno, librarians need to be the Virgils who guide consumers through it and make sense of it for everyone.

Librarians have always been stewards of information. Before the advent of the Internet, I worked in publishing as an editorial assistant. One day a colleague and I were comparing Rolodexes - who had cooler authors, who had nastier agents.
Under "Q", he had a card for "Question Lady". I said, "What's that?"

He pulled out the card and gave it to me. "Call her. Ask her anything." I dialed the number. The voice on the other end of the phone - when I finally got through - said, "New York Public Library Telephone Reference, may I help you?"

Information Explosion

But how are librarians supposed to fully assume the responsibility of information stewardship in the midst of an information explosion? Consumers are increasingly demanding that their informational needs be met from home or office. What we've learned from the adoption and success of the Internet is that consumers want their information streamlined and made more efficient. The more speedily information can
be delivered, absorbed, and used to make decisions, the more successful a library is going to be. If libraries are to remain leaders in today's information market, then librarians need to bring their skills to the electronic realm in consumer-friendly applications that are available even without the presence of librarians themselves.

Instead of requiring less stewardship of librarians, less participation in the information economy, this paradoxically requires more. As more and more information becomes available electronically, rather than only on paper or fiche/film, and as it becomes more universally accessible, caring for that information (organizing it, storing it, and guiding people to it) becomes much more crucial than ever before. If data is organized badly,
it is comparable to the library's books being mis-shelved or periodicals being misplaced. People can't find what they need, even if very good information is available.
This is a common complaint among librarians when they observe how many consumers of information flock to the Internet and absorb, willy-nilly, all sorts of information that may or may not be reliable - that may, in fact, be dangerously unreliable.

Good Research Requires Guidance

Fast delivery should not equal shallow information, as the case of Dr. Alkis Togais clearly demonstrates. Togias assumed that the Internet was a sufficient source of information about a drug that he wished to use in a medical trial - to one subject's ultimate peril. Many librarians have pointed out that, had they been consulted, they could have easily guided Togias towards other sources that described the dangers inherent in using that drug. Library Journal's Academic News Wire on September 11, 2001, reported that an external review board has recommended that a librarian's guidance be required for medical research at Johns Hopkins University - a Virgil on staff, as it were. The review board has realized that good research cannot be conducted without this guidance.

Additionally, much valuable information still resides in...books. While books cannot always be made available online, certainly their bibliographic records can.
The success of Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble.com shows us that
bibliographic records are actually quite meaningful to consumers of information! Based on these records, amplified by other descriptive information such as reviews and tables of contents and excerpts, consumers decide whether to pursue information by buying this or that book. Certainly, a library's own patrons can benefit from these enhancements, which help them decide which book to place on hold or to request via interlibrary loan.

Evolving e-Library Technologies

The trend in OPACs takes into account the increasing demands of information consumers. More than simple catalogs, e-Libraries (as they are known) such as iBistro, iLink, and others offer these descriptive amplifications to MARC records.
And all this extra information is brought together easily at one online location.
iBistro and iLink provide more than 200,000 book reviews from well-known and
reliable sources such as Library Journal and School Library Journal.
More than 100,000 tables of contents help users decide which medical, technical or business books best suit their needs. Over a half-million book summaries give users a quick idea of a title. And nearly 15,000 excerpts (with much more to come in the near future) provide users with the ability to sample a book before deciding whether to request it. These types of features, as well as images of the book covers,
allow library patrons to make use of the library even from home or office, and then place holds on the books they are interested in, based on the research they can do from afar. Patrons' research is not limited to when a library is open.

The e-Library also provides library patrons with access to other powerful sources. Collections of specially selected Web sites, such as those available from SiteSource, serve as portals to reliable, robust documents and other media.
Commerical databases, which are part of a library's core offerings offer the breadth and depth of information on virtually every subject. And thanks to Z39.50-compliant technologies used in e-Libraries, library patrons can do single searches across multiple sources and databases with very little effort. And this is just the current state of the e-Library.
In the months ahead, library automation vendors (and SIRSI, in particular) will deploy content features the likes of which librarians have only begun to dream.

e-Libraries are hardly a replacements for librarians. Rather, e-Libraries provide the framework for librarians to effectively serve information consumers - whether they are academic researchers, elementary school students, professionals, and anyone.
e-Libraries create an organized, rich electronic environment in which to coordinate information delivery. Just as librarians select the books in their collections, they can select what materials go into the e-Library -Web sites, databases, and other kinds of information they want to offer their patrons. (An excellent example of what can be done with an e-Library is Brigham Young University's system, which can be found here. By building an e-Library, librarians can guide their patrons towards the meaningful, useful, and complete information that their library provides - no matter
what format that information takes.

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