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

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."

Building a knowledge strategy for Shell

Dennie had just [at the time of writing this viewpoint in December 2008] moved to a new job with Shell – Global Knowledge Manager for Corporate IT. This is a completely new role, and is proof, if any were needed, on how Shell sees information as a key asset.

It's a job with a blank sheet of paper, but once his feet are under the desk he will need to answer such questions as,

  • "How do we make sure that the programmers store the right information?"
  • "What happens when people retire – what do we need from them, and in what form, reports or a wiki?"
  • "How can we create an information sharing and knowledge sharing culture?"

Dennie believes that you need to build a culture of trust before people can be persuaded to pick up the phone or send an e-mail to someone they don't know. One of his first ideas is to have virtual sessions with different groups in different locations, in which people would just talk about what they were doing, what projects they were working on. Once people know one another, it will be easier to make personal contact.

Previously, up to December 2008, Dennie's role was divided between managing electronic licences and building a global virtual library for SIEP. The former was essentially a procurement role, and involved obtaining, by the best deals possible, the essential books, journals and databases that people in Shell need, and making sure that the funding is in place – "which" according to Dennie, "is an enormous challenge because budgets are expected to go down when prices and demand both go up".

Building the global virtual library involved merging the European libraries with the US one – at the time, the two libraries talked to one another but there was no shared strategy – and replacing some of the smaller libraries with an electronic presence. Dennie tells us:

"Sometimes, it's reasonable to close small libraries because it takes a lot of money to maintain a physical library, and that's not justified if it's not used a lot. The easiest thing would be to cut it and leave people on their own, but that's not a good choice, so we provide an alternative."

As an example of this strategy, Dennie cites the time when Shell opened a major new research centre in Bangalore, India and took the conscious decision to provide a virtual, not a physical, library:

"If this had happened 15 years ago, I would have sent them lists of the books, reference works and journals that they needed. But on this occasion, we served them virtually, training them to use the relevant e-books, search engines, etc. We don't envisage there being a physical library although we hope to place an information scientist at their disposal."

The new library proved very cost-effective, and management was very proud that the new research lab could be got up and running so quickly, and with the right content. But that happened because the right content was already there, on Shell's intranet – it just had to be tweaked to meet the particular demands of this client group.

Shell's virtual library exists as a portal at the highest level of the intranet, with a top-level URL, www.shell.com/library, which is easy to remember (most Shell URLs are hierarchical, and therefore long).

The portal guides people towards the content that is relevant to them by a series of subject-based headings – geosciences, engineering, etc. Once you get into a particular cluster, you can find journals and other resources, search advice, and a listing of information professionals across the world, with telephone numbers.

"I found out that a lot of people feel comfortable using the portal, providing there is someone where they can go for help," says Dennie.

The seven skills of the highly effective information professional

It's clear from this brief description of Dennie's various roles for Shell that he is no shrinking violet (although he has described himself as "quite shy by nature"), and is keen to be out there, interacting with his organization's strategic agenda. You may be the best cataloguer in the world, he maintains, but you won't last long in a major organization if you just stay in your room.

He's written a book about the skills needed to be successful as an information professional in the 21st century: they are all generic rather than specific and are around leadership, innovation, adding value, and being a good communicator. He cites seven in particular.

1. Be creative and innovative

For example, the Shell library put up posters to advertise the newly acquired e-book readers, which attracted many people into the library. Touch tables were also produced to give interactive information sessions about what was in the library. It's important, though, to make sure that your ideas stand up to scrutiny: challenge the ideas of your team to make sure that they have been thought through.

2. Don't just stay in your corner: see the bigger picture

Dennie frequently uses mind mapping software to look at the influences on his team. Talking to those in your organization who are two or three levels up will also give you a different, and broader perspective. Get to know those departments that you work with most, particularly those you do projects with, for example the IT centre. It's particularly important to understand the organization's agenda, and if you have a particular proposal, to ensure a match. "If their agenda is to provide cost reductions or to globalize, make sure that your plans get linked into that because that is the first thing they will notice," Dennie advises.

3. Show leadership

Have a clear vision, a sense of excitement, and help your team to achieve a common goal. In planning the global virtual library, for example, Dennie knew that it was important to offer a service, but that service did not always have to be physical in form. The vision was to have the best possible service, but in the most economical manner.

4. Be persuasive

Appeal both to people's sense of logic, and their emotions: think what's in it for them. It's also a good idea to have a two-minute pitch at the ready, so that if you bump into someone influential in the lift, you can float your idea.

5. Manage your time, and learn the power of the magical word, "no"

Have a list of five to ten priorities, and when something else comes up, ask: "Does it have to be done? Now? By me?".

Plan specific times (say an hour in the morning and an hour in the afternoon) for dealing with your e-mail. Check deadlines for any latitude, and compromise. For example, if you are asked to do a search by 5 pm, you could show the person a database which they could use to do their own search, or only do some that day and some later.

6. Check that all parts of your service add value, and are not just there for historical reasons

Carrying out a search which locates not only the key articles, but also the most important findings adds value, but a (physical) library may just be there for historical reasons. Identify the most important priorities for your organization, and see if your services match them. Reduce costs where possible – for example, avoid costly single user licenses.

7. Learn how to make an effective presentation

The need for good presentation skills is now common in most jobs. You can improve by asking colleagues to review your presentations. Dennie spends a lot of time making presentations, giving pitches, and posting to discussion groups. It's important to have a simple message, and keep on hammering it home.

And if all this sounds inspiring rather than exhausting, Dennie relaxes with his blog in his spare time, Obnoxious Librarian from Hades, a dry satire on life as a corporate librarian which carries the disclaimer "this post and all others are the product of the authors' imagination and any resemblance to real situations is purely bad luck". It's a great read – just read the ones about the micromanaging MBA graduate temporary manager, and being promoted merely so his "manager" could swell the numbers of people at the right pay grade he had reporting to him in order to get a promotion himself.

The Special Libraries Association

Dennie clearly values the SLA and its opportunities for networking and mentoring. Even in an organization the size of Shell, there are a limited number of fellow professionals with whom one can network, or whom one can help.

It was his love of networking and sense of mission, he believes, that won him the award:

"They wanted to have a shining example of a normal guy who makes presentations, who has written a book, who has talked to a lot of people to enhance the profession. But for me, it's normal, I do it because I feel the urge."

He's partly motivated by a sense of wanting to give back; he knows that when he was at the start of his profession, there were people who inspired him, who made him feel, "If he can do it, why shouldn't I?", but it's also a desire to help:

"The bigger the group, the more you spread the message. And a book is potentially distributed to thousands. So I think that's what drives me. I've been very grateful that I've had the chance to work with some very great library leaders during my education. And now it's my turn to give back some of what I've learnt."

Another advantage of an organization like SLA is the possibility of reaching those in less developed, less fortunate countries:

"Three years ago we were approached by the energy librarian from Uganda, one of the poorest countries in the world, who told us, 'Well, I have nothing, just a few books and a few shelves. But I'm motivated to make this library the best in the country to help people develop'.

"To hear that sort of thing is very humbling and makes you realize how much you have yourself. So we've worked together at SLA to make sure he gets extra books, and access to costly databases through specialist United Nations programmes, which provide information free for certain countries. And we are trying to see whether we can help him come to next year's SLA conference to get more exposure.

"Now that we've been looking out for this guy, he's doing well, every time we hear from him he tells us all the things he's been able to do. It gives you a warm feeling inside, and it also shows that you can have great ambitions, even if you have very little."

It works both ways – people have helped Dennie, too. A couple of years ago, during a cost reduction programme, departments were asked to do a benchmarking exercise. Other departments had to get in a consultancy firm, but Dennie was able to pick up the phone and talk to counterparts in other organizations about their strategy. His management were amazed at how much people shared, but for Dennie, this was normal professional practice.

Dennie agrees with the view that the only way that information profession will survive is by its members seeing themselves as "knowledge and information managers", rather than as "librarians" or "information scientists". He points to the example of the HR profession, who found new roles for themselves – talent management and diversity for example – once their payroll function had been automated. The traditional role of the librarian as guardian of information is still there, but diminishing, and being replaced by that of manager and organizer.

To succeed in the information profession, you need a diversity of skills:

  • you need a strong understanding of technology,
  • the skills you learnt at library school, plus
  • first class skills of leadership, communication and management.

The reward is one of the most exciting professions around: far from diminishing the role of the librarian, our world of knowledge workers needs people with the skills to search, manage, navigate and organize the information maze and prevent us getting lost.

Editor's note

Dennie Heye's book, Characteristics of the Successful 21st Century Information Professional, is published by Chandos Publishing, Oxford, 2006.

His blog, Obnoxious Librarian from Hades, can be seen at http://olfh.blogspot.com