Internet search engines drove librarians to redefine themselves

Although librarians adopted Internet technology quickly, they initially dismissed search engines, which duplicated tasks they considered integral to their field. Their eventual embrace of the technology required a reinvention of their occupational identity, according to a study by University of Oregon researchers.

The story of the successful transition — of accommodating a new technology — into a new identity is a good example for professionals in other fields who have faced or currently face such challenges, says Andrew J. Nelson, a professor of management and the Bramsen Faculty Fellow in Innovation, Entrepreneurship and Sustainability in the UO’s Lundquist College of Business.

Librarians, the researchers found, have gone from thinking of themselves as the knowledgeable person with the best answer to a patron’s question to being an interpreter and connector who points patrons to helpful materials for their consideration.

Early on, the researchers wrote that: “Librarians initially described Internet search technology as a niche and emphasized their own unique (and superior) value.” The emerging technology was dismissed, Nelson said, “as something that wasn’t going to spread and be widely used.” But that idea began to fade as more than 70 online search engines emerged between 1989 and 2011.

Nelson and Irwin defined occupational identity as an overlap between “who we are” and “what we do” as they explored the “paradox of expertise” in which librarians failed to grow their informational prowess with an emerging technology. “What made us curious about what happened was that librarians had technical skills — many had been building online databases of their collections with search capabilities very similar to what search engines aimed to develop,” Irwin said. Yet librarians, the researcher said, had misinterpreted the possibilities of Internet searching for such information.

For her doctoral dissertation, Irwin had focused on technological change in American libraries over about 150 years. This project was a side road for her as part of the management department’s philosophy of pairing graduate students with non-supervising faculty for an outside project to broaden their education.

The research was able to document a four-step transition, beginning with librarians “dismissing the technology as something that wasn’t going to spread and be widely used,” Nelson said. Next librarians began to differentiate themselves, accepting Internet searches as a way to provide simple answers because they preferred to interpret web-based search information for patrons.

Eventually, Nelson said, librarians decided to capture the technology and offer their expertise in collaboration with companies that were generating search engines, but the companies chose to go their own way.

Finally, librarians “evolved their approach” by working to develop scholarly-based search engines, such as Google Scholar, and others tied specifically to library holdings.

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