A big day with big business: What role do librarians play?

It wasn't long ago we had a few visitors from the private sector, which got us involved in a discussion over what role librarians should play in the research process.

The mediated era is over, we all agreed, and no longer will librarians do the lion share of work for researchers. Researchers,

in my talks with them, don't want to give up the freedom of searching how they want and when they want. Nor do they want to give up access to the information.

However, our guests from the private industry weren't so cavalier -- as they'd say -- with giving their researchers with the keys to the kingdom. They work and live in a super competitive industry, which has a very high bar for entrance and (from what they say) has entire arms of their very large company dedicated to research and development. This push for new tools and new methods is deeply ingrained in the company's DNA, which can boast reams of research output every year, cutting edge technical reports and century-old patents.

These researchers can handle themselves on the small stuff. They're not going to hurt anything, and it would probably take longer to explain to someone than just to do it. But on the big stuff, the million and billion dollar stuff, librarians have to be involved. Just to make sure every angle has been covered.

The people I work for have a different model. Self service reigns, and the researchers will only contact the librarians (these days) if they are stuck finding one or two key documents. The few times we may hear from a researcher is when a new project is getting underway and people need to catch up on the topic. That's about it.

The private sector people argued the librarians could do a better job

mainly because they had acces to more information. They have a policy of not releasing every database publicly -- within the organization -- mostly because of the cost per click. So, if their scientists needed something deep, deep, they had to go to the library and ask for it. That decision alone has created a culture that allows the company to employ more librarians than a US government agency spread across 11 centers.

Our people argued that the information model is more flat -- everyone basically has access to the same resources. We also don't have nearly the number of subject specialists that a large firm driven by research does. Money and the drive for profits may be a factor, of course. Let's hope it's more complicated than that.  Sure, culture may dictate that the private sector libraries may simply have a higher profile in their organization. The competitive nature of their industry may force R & D to remain a priority. Size certainly has a lot to do with it. Their operations in the US dwarfs anything my group has here.

So, where's the difference? At first blush, the private sector has the worry of costs and the competition behind them. If they miss something, a lot of money could be at stake. We didn't get into it, but you'd think that private sector researchers may work on a stricter schedule than government scientists. You'd also have to wonder about the culture change here, where old time researchers worry about the dying art of the literature search -- just so people can get out of the books and into the laboratory making something. Money and funding create subtle differences. As I said, we currently don't have scientific librarians, which are generally more expensive to find and harder to keep. The private sector group -- as I remember -- have about 10. That's a big difference. Someone from the top probably made the decision that if those people are going to be employed, they need to become part of the process.

We didn't talk about it, but there could be one final reason for the difference in culture. My government colleagues undergo a very thorough peer reveiw process for anything that is written. A government researcher's colleagues will certainly find the holes in the research,  certainly more than a librarian could.

Whatever the reasons, these changes are big differences to the culture of each library. We like to think we have moved on from the old paradigm. The private sector people would probably say they've kept the best parts from the old environment. 

In literature about the rise of the big box stores, people told small business people to try to keep the fight on their level. If you stick to what you do well -- impeecable service,  intimate knowledge of the customer base, flexibility -- you'll win. The minute you try to fight the box stores on their level -- adding new product lines, selling things at low cost, hiring senior citizen greeters -- they will eat you.

So, if you had to pick one: who in this argument will be fighting the box store five, ten years from now?  The private sector library with its databases hidden behind the reference desk and its hand in the important research projects? Or, the government library, which has ceded all authority to its users, claiming they know better than we do?