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An interview with Gary Price

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Photo: Gary priceGary Price is a librarian, information research consultant, and writer based in suburban Washington DC.
A native of the Chicago area, he earned his Masters of Library and Information Science degree from Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan. He also holds a Bachelors of Arts degree from the University of Kansas in Lawrence, Kansas.

Gary is the editor and compiler of The ResourceShelf. This daily electronic newsletter is where he posts news and other resources of interest to the online researcher. He has also compiled several well-known web research tools including Price's List of Lists and direct search, a compilation of Invisible Web databases. These and other compilations have been mentioned in numerous publications including The Washington Post, The Guardian, and The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Gary is a frequent speaker at professional and trade conferences, a contributor to Searcher magazine, and the co-author with Chris Sherman of The Invisible Web, published by CyberAge Books. In January 2003 Price was the guest editor of Search Day. In the summer of 2002, he received the Innovations in Technology Award from the Special Libraries Association. From February 1995 through April, 2001 Gary worked as a reference librarian at the George Washington University.

Library professionals have long been concerned by the lack of esteem the library and information science (LIS) profession holds in higher education as well as the business world. The closing of more than a dozen US graduate programmes in library science from the late 1970s to the early 1990s raised this concern to an even higher level. Now the Internet brings the notion that everything we need is instantly available. Where is the profession headed?

I think we in the profession must do a better job of not only telling, but also showing and demonstrating our skills. More and more information becomes available every day. Organizing it and making it accessible is important (and gets more important each day) but if we don't actively market our skills to our employers and the general public (those who have no idea that we even still exist), problems will continue. Said another way, we must make ourselves relevant in a world where the notion that information is all instantly available exists.

This ties into the issues of low pay and status for librarians compared to other professions. Do you think this is related to the fact that many libraries are publicly funded? Has the profession realized the need to show a return on investment?

Yes, many libraries are publicly funded but I would suggest that it also relates to our "perceived" value by those who "pay the bills". They might be thinking, "why do I have to pay for someone to do 'it' for me, when I can get it all on the free Web by just typing in two or three words?". The same goes for the need to pay for a database that offers content either not on the Web or more easily accessible via a fee-based service.

It's the Information Age – you'd think that librarians would be at the top of the food chain in corporate and academic settings! What can LIS professionals do to increase their value to their organizations?

Be proactive, share, and be resourceful. This might be as simple as dashing off a quick e-mail to a colleague. Letting them know about a new article, or informing them with an advanced search tip for their favourite web engine are easy and inexpensive ways of not only being relevant but reminding people that you're available. Once people know what you can do and associate you as their information "go to" person, they'll be back for more. Maybe we should call this relationship building with both groups of users and individuals.

Association of Independent Information Professionals (AIIP) president Mary Ellen Bates says it best when she says "we need to get in peoples faces, politely of course".

Is gender bias an issue at all? Let's face it – many people envision a librarian as a shushing female. There is even a doll made in this image in the USA that has really raised the ire of some LIS professionals, while others find it amusing.

I got the joke and smiled about the librarian doll, but with all of the widespread attention it received in the media I think it subtly or not so subtly reinforces the beliefs that many people have about us, male or female.

What about the issue of librarian stereotypes – you have said that some remain and some are gone. Could you elaborate on that?

Unfortunately, many people in the general public still maintain old notions about libraries and librarians. It is important to keep in mind that we, as professionals, all represent each other and in a sense we all market for each other. Things change so fast in our field, so we are challenged to be constantly learning new technologies and to be aware of new resources. The best way to overcome any remaining stereotypes is to demonstrate our skills effectively when called upon, and even when we are not called upon. Do excellent work. Share your success stories. Actions speak louder than stereotypes.

How can librarians stay ahead of the perception that everything people need is two clicks away on Google?

Google and other web engines are fine for certain types of searching. However, it's not the best choice in some situations.

The challenge for us is not only telling people about what Google and other web engines can offer, but also showing them what's not available. Likewise, we can demonstrate how to be a better web search engine searcher. This is valuable information for many people. Why? With the help and knowledge of a good information professional we can help to save the time of our users. This is a commodity everybody wants to have more of.

By the way, even if the material is in Google (and many other good web search engines exist) we can often help the person find what they need more quickly and efficiently using a specialized database. Remember, for many people if it's not in the first few results, it doesn't exist.

Finally, a recent study noted that the web searcher is more interested in relevance of the results set than credibility of the content. As if an instant answer to their question is more important than where the answer came from! I wasn't surprised to read this, but it sure illustrates that we have a lot of work to do.

I have heard comments that library schools today focus too much on technology, and that MLS programmes are churning out webmasters rather than librarians... your thoughts?

For me a key component of librarianship today is having knowledge about a wide variety of tools and resources and the skills to use the correct one at the proper time. Technical skills about running websites, coding html, understanding xml are also important, but I don't think one is more important than the other. Perhaps the most important skill that's needed is how to market and demonstrate our skills and services. In other words, being able to sell yourself and your library.

What would you say to a college student looking into the LIS field?

I think my decision to attend library school and become part of the LIS profession was one of the best decisions I ever made in my life. Librarians have so much to offer. Our skills and services range from helping to develop anthologies, working at a busy reference desk, teaching information literacy, and so many others. However, we need to do a better job in teaching the public what we can offer and why it's important to them. When people need information, what they usually need is the solution to a problem. We can help them find that solution, whatever it may be.