[31/5/07 edit: comments on this post are now closed]
It is a myth that librarians ever had an monopoly on providing information to people, but if we ever did have a monopoly, that’s well and truly going away now. No, this isn’t another “librarians as endangered species” post. This is my version of the other Future of Librarianship theme, that the world is changing and we’d better learn to adapt. It has been very eye-opening to be spending some time in a totally different job, in a very different industry. It is interesting how different the profession looks from my current position outside of it, even though I am still a librarian on the inside.
In the interests of full disclosure and providing some background, I am currently working at a Vodafone call centre (a very large mobile phone company with a major presence everywhere except for the USA). It has been an amazing experience. I have been surprised by the similarities between working as a librarian and the humble job of working in a call centre. To succeed in both sorts of work, you need to be smart, computer savvy, be good at finding information and solving problems, able to communicate well and to put it bluntly, know how to be nice to people. Of course, there are some differences. You don’t need a college/university degree to work in my call centre. It has been very interesting to be trained and work with people who haven’t gone to university, but who are still very smart. I have always known that level of education doesn't equal intelligence, but it’s one thing to think this in a politically correct way, and something else to really know this. The other big difference is that call centres are very, very strict about punctuality. They’re still easing us into this regimen, but we know that being a even couple of minutes late from lunch is a very serious infraction. There are reasons for this. It’s all about managing the phone queues. Call centres use very complicated maths to work out the ideal number of people who should be on the floor answering calls at any one time. One or two people being late can cause this delicate balancing act to collapse in a messy heap. The customers have to wait longer, and get more pissed off, which causes the calls to be longer and more difficult, which upsets and tires the workers (who then take fewer calls, aren’t as nice or as competent, and end up taking more sickies or even quit), which causes the queues to get even longer, and so on. So that’s the big difference between libraries and call centres, back to the similarities. The most important in both places is to find out what your customer really wants. Sometimes this can be quite difficult, especially when there are linguistic or cultural differences – especially those North Queenslanders! Then there’s knowing how to find the information to help the customer. There are so many things which can go wrong with a mobile phone, or which a mobile phone customer might ask for. Similar to when I worked in a library, I need to find this information on the large corporate intranet very quickly, or at least, know who does know this information. But there’s more than these general differences. There is one division of my call centre which receive questions very similar to those which a librarian might receive. Vodafone offers a service whereby customers can dial 123 on their mobile and ask for any sort of information. The Melbourne Age mentioned this service in an article this week. A librarian (not me, I wouldn't dis a current employer in that way) could argue that this is a very shoddy second-rate reference service. First of all, it is done by non-professionals. After all, two or three weeks of intensive training can hardly substitute for a Master’s level library qualification. Secondly, 123 relies on Google (or other search engines) and what’s available in the free web. In this respect, it is similar to Google Answers. Librarians know of many instances when information found on the web can be inaccurate , incomplete or totally missing (especially older information). Librarians know that search engines, even the mighty Google, have their flaws. One the other hand, this is what something like 123 has in its favour: - Although it is not a substitute for a librarian’s full reference service, it does provide simple and quick answers to simple questions. Sometimes that’s all that people need. - It is very convenient to just dial 123 and make phone call from a mobile phone, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. One alternative would be to dial directory assistance for one’s library and then make another call, during the library’s opening hours, to the library. Another alternative would be for the customer to find the information for herself on the web, but 123 is available for people who are away from their computers. Things like Google and 123 have torn to shreds the notion that librarians have an exclusive role in providing information to the people. The information marketplace has become quite complex and I think that it is big enough for a lot of different players. I draw an analogy between the information marketplace and the food marketplace. There are so many different ways in which one can get food. You can eat out at fancy restaurants, casual dining places or have fast food. It is also possible to get food from a supermarket, food co-op or farmer’s market and prepare it yourself. There are some people who even grow or catch their own food and prepare it. There’s other food which is completely mechanized and processed. Some food is healthier and better than others. Some eating establishments are more reputable than others. The appearance of fast food did not make supermarkets or nice restaurants extinct. Although lots of people like to do their own cooking, there are still professional chefs. I am not saying that I like or approve of this situation, I’m just calling things as I see them. Our challenge as librarians is to secure our place in the information marketplace. It’s a waste of time for us to try to be all things to all people in what has become something really huge. It is better to do a few things really well. Some people might focus on providing information of the highest quality, with freshest ingredients and the best service. Others will find different answers. I don’t optimistically think that everything will necessarily turn out for the best for everyone. I can imagine that it was very different to be a cook in the nineteenth century than it is today. The middle-class was smaller and many more upper-class families employed a cook as a household servant. Today, food preparation has been exploded into a myriad of different occupations. Some people are better off, like the chefs in the high-end restaurants, who are well paid and respected. On the other hand, the food workers in fast food chains have not done as well. Compared with the nineteenth century cooks, today’s fast food workers have been deprofessionalized. I wonder if same thing might happen with information professionals, that the number of traditional librarian jobs will decrease, only to be replaced by new occupations on the high-end and low-end of the information marketplace.