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The role of librarians in business intelligence and knowledge management

Librarians, or information scientists, as they are also referred to these days, are trained precisely in the skills that a knowledge manager or a business intelligence analyst often needs.

This article originally appeared on the BeyeNETWORK

If there is one profession that has traditionally been underutilized in terms of the contribution they can make to business intelligence and knowledge management, it is the librarians. This is especially true in the federal government. Recently, I had the pleasure of teaching a knowledge management course to a group of librarians from the U.S. Army, and it brought home again the role that these knowledge brokers play today in most enterprises and the much more expanded role that they could – no, should – play in the years ahead.

First, let’s deal with the question of whether librarianship is about how to deal with books. Librarians emerged basically as the earliest guardians of knowledge once that knowledge was made explicit and captured in some external medium, primarily books. Today, as the Army librarians made patently clear, the vast majority of their work is serving as knowledge managers and connecting anyone that has the need to know something with the right source for that knowledge. Most of these sources are online databases or documents that have to be discovered and accessed in cyberspace.

Of course, it’s not just about finding the right book on building the pyramids of Egypt for the fifth-grader son of an Army captain. No, it can be about quickly providing an Army surgeon with the absolute latest knowledge – possibly via an online video of a medical procedure – on how to treat an acute case of traumatic brain injury; or bringing to an Army engineer’s attention – by linking him to the appropriate website – the existence of a new material that can substantially reduce the rate of water erosion of a levee; or connecting the family of a wounded warrior to an online support group for similar injuries. 

Librarians, or information scientists, as they are also referred to these days, are trained precisely in the skills that a knowledge manager or a business intelligence analyst often needs. They know the importance of taxonomies, the classification schemes or naming conventions, such as the Linnean system for classifying living things or the Dewey Decimal System for cataloguing books. They understand that without taxonomies, finding specific content in vast collections of documents, whether virtual or real, is very hard. They recognize the importance of metadata, or context, in facilitating the correct identification of a document after it has been contributed to a digital library or an online repository, especially if it is an image or an audio clip. They also know how critical it is to be able to tag things with more than one handle. The classic card catalog in our libraries, where we could look under the AUTHOR, TITLE or SUBJECT headings, is the best example of this multidimensional approach to search.

Navigation in portals is probably one of the biggest shortcomings of these gateways to knowledge, and navigation is about finding things in (or through) the portal. This is essentially about search and taxonomy and clarity in instructions. This is very much a task for librarians to tackle. I would take every major portal where navigation is a problem and give a group of librarians the job of improving it.

This is becoming increasingly critical. Let’s just look at some of the challenges we face as we move into the brave new world of virtuality.  First, finding anything as our knowledge spaces grow is going to truly become a test of our technical mettle. Look at the numbers: according to a recent IDC study, just in 2006 we generated 161 exabytes of information. That is the equivalent of 3 million times all the books ever written. And the forecast is that in 2010, we will produce over five times that much data.

Furthermore, the vast majority of that data is being contributed by users; hence, it is not the generally well classified structured data that we have traditionally been accustomed to working with over the last few decades. No, over 95% of these documents consist of unstructured data (e.g., text, video, audio, etc.) with few identifiers once they have been launched into cyberspace.

Let’s just look at some of these numbers again that were compiled by Rob Heiner, the former Chief Knowledge Officer of the Coast Guard, even while we recognize that by the time they were presented they were probably already old.

About 1 billion songs a year are currently being shared on the Internet. The London surveillance cameras transmit in the order of 64 billion bytes of data per day. Wikipedia has over 2 million articles (just in English). YouTube hosts more than 100 million video streams per day. By 2010, it is expected that we will be capturing half a trillion images via our cell phones.  According to Technorati, the online authority on blogs, they track approximately 100 million blogs and add 175,000 new ones per day, accounting for approximately 18 updates per second.

All these bits and bytes are certainly data, most contain information, and collectively they can and will substantially contribute to the world’s knowledge base. But finding anything and making sense out of it as we move from intelligence to knowledge will be very challenging.

That is where librarians can make a big difference. Give them the right tools, and they will become the best knowledge managers for our new world.

Dr. Barquin is the President of Barquin International, a consulting firm, since 1994. He specializes in developing information systems strategies, particularly data warehousing, customer relationship management, business intelligence and knowledge management, for public and private sector enterprises. He has consulted for the U.S. Military, many government agencies and international governments and corporations.

Dr. Barquin is a member of the E-Gov (Electronic Government) Advisory Board, and chair of its knowledge management conference series; member of the Digital Government Institute Advisory Board; and has been the Program Chair for E-Government and Knowledge Management programs at the Brookings Institution. He was also the co-founder and first president of The Data Warehousing Institute, and president of the Computer Ethics Institute. His PhD is from MIT. Dr. Barquin can be reached at

Editor's note: More government articles, resources, news and events are available in the BeyeNETWORK's Government Channel. Be sure to visit today!

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