The explosion of Internet resources, new software applications, and ever-faster, more-powerful computer systems has led many budget-cutters to replace people with technology.
But could an "intelligent software agent" do what, say, a librarian can do?
We conducted a study of corporate libraries at Apple Computer in Cupetino, Calif., and Hewlett-Packard Research Labs in Palo Alto, Calif., to find out. Our conclusion in this version of Kasporov versus computer chess: It would be virtually impossible for a software agent to replace librarians for several reasons not generally understood.
First, librarians are more than technicians. They are, it seems, information therapists who analyze problems as well as find answers. At Hewlett-Packard, for example, a client wanted to be enlightened about "the presence of HP in Japan and Europe." The librarian pointed out the problems with this request: "Is the person thinking about market share or the number of units? Does he mean plant size or relative presence? Does he need something economic like conversion ratios?"
A skilled librarian can focus the search and add other possible areas of interest to clients. This occurs through artful conversations that librarians modestly call "reference interviews," which would be impossible to duplicate or at least time consuming and incomplete if done through keyword searches.
Just the facts, please
Librarians can seek information even when their clients can't figure out just what they want. A management consultant described how he needed to get a feel for the size of a new industry: "... whether it's smaller than a bread box, bigger than a house - just size it." Perhaps someday software will exist that can evaluate such a request. But not today.
Librarians understand that information wears all sorts of disguises - as financial data, scientific articles, analyst reports, news, product reviews, and patents, just to name a few. Unlike software programs, librarians can judge the reliability of sources (are they rumor or fact?), estimate costs, and find material with a particular slant or perspective.
They also think of useful things clients wouldn't think of themselves. For example, one librarian said whenever she receives a request for all of an author's technical papers she asks whether the client wants the author's patents as well.
No wonder clients often become attached to a librarian who can personalize their searches. Once librarians have a client history, they can aim the search spotlight exactly where the client wants it, without a second round of questions.
An invaluable service only a librarian could perform, particularly for clients in business or government, is to find and broker the release of proprietary material. Librarians are both discreet and nosy. In corporations and government departments, librarians make it their job to know what their colleagues are up to. When it comes to distributing proprietary material, they can often put the right people in touch, then let them decide if they want to share secrets.
Another service that would be impossible for software to perform is to read, and weed out, what librarians call "false drops," citations that technically match search criteria but actually have nothing to do with the client's needs. Not having to slog through these is a blessing for busy people trying to compete in today's business climate.
But perhaps the most valuable service librarians perform is to act as guides to the information riches in cyberspace. Librarians were among the earliest computer users, even creating some of the first international standards for databases so that bibliographic data could be transferred around the world.
Because of their experience with technology and information searches, librarians can quickly adjust to the rapidly changing landscape of Internet resources and on-line databases. At the Apple Library, librarians were sometimes heard to mutter that a particular commercial database was "lame" or "pathetic."
Software's soft spot
Unlike your average cyberpilgrim, librarians understand when a database is returning lousy results because it has not been updated or the index terms have changed. They are able to save clients money by doing pre-searches, by using the most cost-effective databases, and by using the right combination of key words to focus but not over-constrain a search.
The most critical and underestimated advantage librarians bring to bear is the most obvious - the human touch. A client who had been on-line across from the circulation desk of the Apple Library walked over and simply stood there - speechless and frowning. Recognizing his frustration, the librarian immediately responded by helping her client articulate his problem and accomplish the search.
Try that with a software agent.