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The future of the future: Rise of the knowledge librarian

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This article appears in the issue February 2009 [Volume 18, Issue 2]


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Both the private and public sectors have been steadily downsizing and closing their physical libraries, which some consider to be nothing more than warehouses that take up space and lose money. Thinkers like us saw them as nice, quiet spaces where we could hide from the boss and escape the annoying distractions of the office. We could surround ourselves with piles of paper on those huge tables. Aisles of books, stacked from floor to ceiling, formed an insulating barrier from the stress of the outside world. But something happened on the way to the knowledge economy …

Delivering knowledge vs. information

Corporate librarians used to devote years acquiring and cataloging physical document collections. All those serials and monographs, outdated by the time they arrived from the printers, are simply not that competitive anymore. Knowledge is not static. It must be continually refreshed through venues such as open discussion and brainstorming. That calls for a new kind of library.

A quick look at the Pacific Northwest gives us a glimpse into what the library of the future might look like. On almost every city block are cafes where people go to seek out and learn from like-minded individuals. Wireless Internet is usually available. Students gather to study and compare notes. Some of the larger cafes host scheduled social events. Even perfect strangers can be found collaborating and exchanging stories about real-life struggles and triumphs.

Here you can see a strong trend toward organic products, perhaps another indicator of a move back to a simpler time when communities played an important role in everyday life … when the milkman actually came to your house and talked with you. You knew the farmers, and the farmers knew you.

The upshot is that teams and communities are once again becoming the preferred problem-solving mode, as opposed to individuals working in isolation. The quiet cubbyholes with "no talking" signs must give way to open spaces, super-sized electronic wall displays, lounge chairs and WiFi hotspots.

Unfortunately, there have been casualties. Librarians are being jettisoned along with the bookcases. We need to reverse that trend and start bringing them back … but only the ones who are willing to change. A traditional corporate librarian must make three major shifts in roles begin the transition to a knowledge librarian.

Role shift #1: A knowledge librarian should be the "content czar" of the enterprise. That role, often ascribed to the CIO or CKO, must be returned to the librarian, where it belongs. Search engines have made it easy for people to find content, thereby pretty much eliminating that function. But librarians bring other essential skills to the table. Librarians gave us an orderly way—those neatly organized stacks—to wander around and find things, even when we didn’t know what we were looking for. In every enterprise, someone still needs to figure out where to put stuff so people can find it. Taxonomy boot campers, take heart.

Even more important is the librarian’s skill as a knowledge broker. Knowledge librarians must constantly make new connections that will enhance the flow of knowledge across the enterprise. While knowledge pull can come from search engines, knowledge push still works best when human intermediaries are involved.

Role shift #2: A knowledge librarian understands the strategic information needs of the enterprise. Information is the primary raw material of the global knowledge-based economy. That places the knowledge librarian at the very heart of the input side of the value chain. Librarians must have a seat at the table when planning and monitoring the organization’s strategic goals and objectives.

The knowledge librarian can help identify and close gaps in organizational knowledge. But that can only be done if the information resources and strategy of the enterprise are in alignment. While electronic space is a lot cheaper than floor space, the cost of acquiring and maintaining quality information remains high. Paying for unnecessary information resources is just as wasteful as cutting off sources of crucial information to meet budget constraints. Having someone keep an eye on the critical knowledge points in the value chain will reap huge dividends over the long run.

Role shift #3: A knowledge librarian is a lead agent of change. The librarian of the future must get out from behind the reference desk and become involved with everybody and everything. The ability to see problems and opportunities from many different perspectives makes that person uniquely positioned to help break down barriers and connect the dots in ways that might not happen otherwise.

The real challenge is to be proactive in overturning the status quo. There are always better ways to do things. Although resistance may be fierce initially, success will come by focusing on what’s best for the organization. By always seeking common ground, the knowledge librarian can be a valuable resource in minimizing the individual and political conflicts that impede the flow of knowledge.

The librarian of the future is uniquely positioned to be at the center of the creation and alignment of intellectual assets across the enterprise. That leads to improved innovation and business performance on a sustained basis. Maybe the time will soon come when we will see librarians as CKOs.

Any organization that wants to make the transition to an enterprise of the future needs a few strong-willed individuals who have the desire and know-how to make knowledge flow quickly and easily. Who better to do that than those quiet heroes who have always come to our rescue whenever we needed answers?   


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