The Librarian and the Travel Agent

I have been thinking a lot this week about how libraries are skirting ever closer to a precipice they generally refuse to acknowledge.

While certainly a cynic, I’m not generally a Cassandra, so before proclaiming last rites on the library, I wanted to make sure I had thought about this some. This was probably spurred on by the “Murder MARC” thread on NGC4Lib.

And I got to thinking about travel agents.

Fifteen or twenty years ago, it was nigh onto impossible to book a trip anywhere without a travel agent. My mother worked part-time for a travel agent; travel agents were everywhere. It seemed as much a part of travelling as does a real estate agent seem part of home buying today. It’s technically possible to work without them, but life is going to be a whole lot easier if you do. Travel agents held the keys to your vacation; you were at the mercy of where, when and how much your vacation was to be.

Then, sometime during the dot-com blitz, up popped sites such as Expedia, Travelocity and Orbitz. Suddenly, the consumer controlled his or her own travel. The traveller could waste as much time as he or she wanted looking for the perfect getaway; setting up fare watches to places they might randomly want to go; researching the hotel on the receiving end. All this without hassle of somebody trying arrange the trip for them. Sure, you might not have found the best rate or gotten a free meal thrown in at your destination, but the merits outweighed the costs. You began to know fewer and fewer travel agents.

For a long time librarians viewed Amazon.com and the other online booksellers as their primary competition. It made sense; both parties were hawking roughly the same physical wares. For a very long time, booksellers and libraries have coexisted. There was an understanding of the differences between the two models and, despite attempts to make the library catalog act more like Amazon, the market for each seemed fairly well intact.

Search engines, however, were happy to freely give away information indiscriminently. As the Googles and Yahoos indexed more and more content and the information grew freer and freer, libraries began to seem more antiquated and backwards in comparison. With more and more information available — preprints, Open Access, book digitization efforts — the need for specific content began to wane. Users began to lose interest working with arcane brokers of information when the information they were finding on their own met their needs. Librarians, in response, chastized the users’ choices and maintained that a steady diet of hard work and piety was the only way to achieve scholarly salvation. Dogmatic adherence to preservation of metadata took precedence over improving the user’s ability navigate and discover. After all, we know better than the user how to find the best fares, right?

I’m not a Cassandra, I’m really not. Disruptive technologies can lead to revolutionary changes, after all.

However, these thoughts came to a boil today. I have been given a lot of criticism about the way I rely on the search engines to provide a lot of functionality in the mlaut. How, despite the money we pay for our licensed resources, I still prominently display free web search results.

The fact of the matter is that it’s impossible for me include our precious resources for anything useful, while including Google, Yahoo and Amazon was a piece of cake. The best I can hope to give our users from our collection are links to lists of databases or subject guides; without considerable work on my part and the librarians all I can hope to get them is a generic link to all of our databases or a list of subject guides. With the search engines I can at least narrow down the information as to be somewhat useful. And if it’s not? They don’t have to use it. There’s a link to the library, that’s one link away from the databases or subject guides.

At this point it’s important for us to empower the user; not with arcane searching techniques in hard to find resources, but by leveraging our systems so they can be integrated easily into wherever the user is looking and by exposing our content and services in ways that fit into the user’s sphere of control and comfort. If we don’t, the user will still find information that is ‘good enough’ for their needs and more will be added every day. Then, we’ll not only have lost our control, but our relevance as well.

7 comments
  1. The fact of the matter is that it’s impossible for me include our precious resources for anything useful, while including Google, Yahoo and Amazon was a piece of cake. The best I can hope to give our users from our collection are links to lists of databases or subject guides; without considerable work on my part and the librarians all I can hope to get them is a generic link to all of our databases or a list of subject guides…. At this point it’s important for us to empower the user; not with arcane searching techniques in hard to find resources, but by leveraging our systems so they can be integrated easily into wherever the user is looking and by exposing our content and services in ways that fit into the user’s sphere of control and comfort. If we don’t, the user will still find information that is ‘good enough’ for their needs and more will be added every day. Then, we’ll not only have lost our control, but our relevance as well.

    I concur.

    First of all, the comparison of librarian to travel agent is apropos. Have you ever looked at the screens and arcane commands they send back and forth through their terminals to some unknown centralized computer. Ick! The whole thing remindes me of really ancient DIALOG searching. When was the last time you used a travel agent? Even today, I use an online service, print my itinerary, visit the travel agent (so the University will pay the fee up-front), and they find the same flights I find.

    Second, and more importantly, the bibliogrpahic resources us librarians are licensing are impossible to use in a Web 2.0 environment. Yes, some of them use Z39.50, but we all know the problems with different interpretations of Z39.50. Few, if any support SRW/U. I should would like to harvest their links via OAI. No, I’m not expecting to get the article, but I do expect to get author, title, date, description, a few subject terms, and a static URL. I could then index that content along side the catalog content, along side my locally digitized content, etc. “I don’t need their interface. I just need the data.”


    Eric Lease Morgan
    University Libraries of Notre Dame

  2. Roger Hiles said:

    I think you’ve hit upon an uncomfortable but close analogy. What we have going for us is that it’s easier to automate finding the cheapest or fastest trip than the most accurate or reliable information on the million topics we deal with.

    Still, this difference at best gives us time to re-tool.

    Roger Hiles
    Collection and Processing Services
    Pollak Library, California State University, Fullerton

  3. Ross said:

    Eric, I totally agree. In many cases I can’t even take advantage of the sites that provide Z39.50. Maybe we don’t know how connect (username/password or host/port or whatever). Maybe it’s just not a very good resource for what the user is looking for. We’d have to come up with some sort of way to figure out that because the user’s source database was “x” and they’re looking at the journal of “y”, it makes sense to remotely search “z”. That’s going to take some plumbing.

    Roger, I think the problem with this line of thinking is that it ignores the fact users might not care if they’re getting the absolutely best material written on a topic. Oh sure, faculty or Phd candidates might, and I think that we can probably limp along, catering to these specific interest groups (after all, there are all still some travel agents left), but if they users can find ‘basically’ what they want, without the hassle, I think they’ll be happy to move on.

  4. Jonathan said:

    I’ve been using travel agents again lately, myself. They started being able to find better deals at the times I wanted to fly then I could do for myself, for whatever reason.

    I’ve also noticed that Google results haven’t been as good for me lately as they used to be (started noticing this about eight months ago, anyone else).

    But the travel agent analogy is a useful one. This isn’t the first time I’ve heard it, it was in fact being kicked around in ‘library school’ from which I just graduated six months ago.

    Certainly, I think your conclusions are apt though, about user empowerment and systems/data integration.

    The argument that becuase we pay for things, we shouldnt’ also help users find things that are free—is ridiculous on a number of levels. We should keep the free things a secret? As if that’s up to US, as if users won’t know about them unless we tell them? And why would we want to anyway? Our job is connecting users with information, not hiding it from them! We still need to pay for the stuff, becuase we pay for stuff that is needed and that can’t be gotten for free. And if that wasn’t true, we’d be happy, right, we could save huge money!

    But yeah. In general, I am not currently optimistic about how libraries in general are managing, or not, to find a new place in the overall ‘information ecology’. There is, no doubt, a place for libraries and librarians, probably a bigger place than there is for travel agents. But the place is certainly not in futiley trying to convince users that nothing has changed from 20 years ago!

  5. Roger Hiles said:

    Ross, while currently search engines might get you close to where you want to go, to use the librarian-as-travel agent comparison, it’s as if an online travel site were to drop you off 100 miles from your intended destination a week before you wanted to get there. That is *close*, but not *close enough* for most people.

    My point was that we still have (a little) time left before the accuracy of search engines, and the data available to them, improves to where they really can get *close enough* for most of our patrons. I did not mean to say it would never happen, only that it has not happened yet. In the time we have left, we need to identify and focus on what humans in our profession can do for our patrons that we can do better and cheaper than machines.

    I guess I’m saying that we face more of a steep downward slope than a precipice. If we run, we can make it without falling!

  6. John said:

    Another reason to go back to travel agents is because there are so many horrible stories about online travel agencies (poor customer support, canceled flights, no refund, even fraud).
    You can read some of these stories here: http://www.victimsofexpedia.com/otas.htm

  7. Ross said:

    And I’m sure no traditional travel agent or agency has ever been convicted of misconduct.

    Joe’s Fantastic Vacations, down on Main St. might steal your money and send you to a Kazakhstan resort prison, too.

    Of course, I’m not sure I’m not replying to a spambot.

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