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The role of the information scientist and specialist librarian in the 21st century

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Photo: Denni HeyeBy Dennie Heye and Margaret Adolphus

Dutch information scientist Dennie Heye was the Special Libraries Association (SLA) Europe's Information Professional of the Year for 2008, and in 2007 was the winner of a Quantum2 InfoStar award.

Dennie works for Shell International Exploration and Production (SIEP), a business of Royal Dutch Shell Plc. He has used a combination of traditional information skills, such as cataloguing, taxonomies and indexing, together with technological know-how and management skill to make a considerable contribution to the Dutch energy giant.

But it is for his work in the wider community of information professionals that Dennie received his 2008 award: he has been a member of SLA since 1998, and is the International Relations Chair of its Division of Petroleum and Energy Resources. He has also been involved with the Dutch Library Association (NVB), and the Nederlandse Informatiemanagers Combinatie (NIC) Foundation, a group of senior librarians from corporate and technical academic libraries, who focus on strategy and innovation.

The role of the information scientist and specialist librarian

In an age of disintermediation, when it's so easy for people to look things up themselves, what is the role of the specialist librarian?

Dennie believes that the role of the information scientist in principle has not changed much over the last 30 or 40 years, and involves helping people to structure, manage, navigate and find information. However, far from diminishing, "the application of what we do has become a lot broader". Information scientists now work in ways and areas that even five or ten years ago would not have been dreamt of.

Shell, for example, is a company of 100,000 people worldwide. Every problem has most likely already been dealt with by someone else in another part of the organization, perhaps in another part of the world, or someone is facing the same problem. So the issue is, how do you get these people to connect with one another to share their experiences?

When wikis were adopted in addition to discussion groups, it was soon found that just throwing stuff on the Web was not good enough. You needed people to encourage submissions, then polish the content and put structure and links on it. And that role fell to a librarian.

And when a new website was constructed, the library was asked to help with navigation. The information team got involved with records management – deciding what documents were needed to be kept in perpetuity and persuading people to adopt the system – because they were most likely to be able to get their heads around the task.

A core role of any librarian, however, is to help people with complex queries. Most people are too busy or too highly paid to do these themselves.

Dennie says:

"If I look at my own company, people are so pressed for time, even if they want to do something themselves, their hourly tariff is so much higher than a specialist librarian, they are encouraged by their management, 'No, no, no, if it takes more than – say – two hours, go to a professional. Cooperate on this because you want to be sure that you get the maximum results with the minimum of effort'".

The information must be structured: it's important not just to give a list of references, but to prioritize and contextualize. He says:

"For example, we have two literature researchers in our US library, who work very closely with particular departments. When asked a question, they will not only make a report, but also provide a summary and highlight key information. For example, 'Based on discussions we've had and knowing what I know about your department or your strategy, read this first' or 'This is extra information, but it's clearly very important to you'.

"This is appreciated because people don't want to have to trawl through a 40 page report. If you can tell them about, say, the common theme, or that a particular author is referenced a lot and this is what he says, then that is a value-added service, and that's what we do."

Above all, the specialist librarian acts as a linchpin between those who use systems and those who construct them. Dennie will often be involved by the information technology (IT) department in the development of software systems, to give an overview of how people search and use information.

For example, in 2004 he helped with the construction of a new search engine, carrying out end-user acceptance testing; the IT department knew what hardware and software they needed, but they also needed an overview of search behaviour.

"More and more often I get asked, 'We're going to buy this new database. We can't ask all 2,000 users in the chemistry department, could you give us an overview of how they look for information? What features do they need?'", says Dennie.

A lot of this work is behind the scenes, which means that it's easy to miss. For example, Dennie will get phone calls from people claiming that they can freely access articles from, say, Elsevier. To which he responds,

"Do you know that I arranged this? I make sure that there's a contract, I build the structure behind the account so that you can see it. Do you want me to prove this by turning off your access?".

Even in an age when librarianship is more and more dependent on technology, many of the old library school skills are still relevant – like cataloguing, indexing and thesauri. Dennie tells us:

"One of the first projects I did at Shell involved building a taxonomy, and I was not sure what that meant, then I realized that it was similar to a thesaurus. A thesaurus is a controlled vocabulary used to assign keywords, whereas a taxonomy is often used to assign metadata, it's a little looser than a thesaurus, but it's essentially the same beast.

"I was being asked to develop a taxonomy for web design, for the top navigation structure, 'country, business, process'. That's something that we as information professionals have learnt to do for books and articles, so we apply the same skill to websites."