Alan Bennett is a fine dramatist. His television monologues can hold your attention with just one character, and can be uncomfortably truthful. In A woman of no importance (1982) office worker Peggy Schofield is a fussy middle-aged spinster obsessed with order. She believes that her skill with the photocopier is indispensable. And what’s more she assumes her colleagues in the office appreciate and value her skills. It’s clear that she overvalues the importance of her expertise. The uncomfortable truth is that her skill has become universal and is regarded by everyone else as no skill at all since everyone these days can operate the photocopier. They don’t need her – she is a victim of disintermediation but she doesn’t know it.
In my early days as a librarian I envied the information wizards who performed online literature searches – they had mastered the arcane system commands and database indexing and could react quickly to adjust their search as results came through. Then I became a wizard myself and enjoyed being able to pull bibliographic rabbits out of digital hats. When disintermediation hit, searching moved from the esoteric to the commonplace. Everyone could have a go at it and they did.
Hence, I think of Miss Schofield sometimes. Perhaps her biggest problem was her lack of self-awareness: she was not self-critical or reflective. Librarians have had to be more adaptable and we don’t jealously guard access to searching but seek to disseminate our skills. We train library users to be searchers and now information literacy is a major campaign in academic and research libraries. Sadly, rather like Miss Schofield’s colleagues, many academics and researchers are still deaf to the message of information literacy. They assume that information searching and handling skills are self-evident and innate and require no added training.
Early in 2008 year the JISC/BL report The Google Generation looked at the information-seeking behaviour of students and researchers. The report found that impatience with search and navigation was common and that people rely on only the most basic search tools. It called for more information literacy programmes and for libraries to respond better to users’ needs.
Now another report, from the Research Information Network (RIN), goes further. Mind the Skills Gap – Information handling training for researchers looks at the information training that is provided for researchers by libraries and other bodies. Although it focuses only on higher education libraries (RIN seem to have forgotten that research goes on in research institutes too!) it finds that training is uncoordinated between the different training bodies, and there is insufficient assessment of training needs. It does re-emphasise the importance of information skills:
There is evidence to suggest that research information skills and competencies have not kept pace with rapid change in this area. Library and information specialists consider that even when researchers regard themselves as competent, they often show alarming deficits in their skills.
This raises important questions about how researchers acquire the appropriate skills in discovering and handling research information resources and services, the training opportunities provided for them, and the take-up of those opportunities.
What do you think – do the modern-day Miss Schofields have anything to teach you about information skills or are they, like her, living in the past?