Friday, July 10, 2009

Review of Digital Consumers: Reshaping the Information Professions

Digital Consumers: Reshaping the Information Professions

My review of Digital Consumers: Reshaping the Information Professions. Edited by David Nicholas and Ian Rowlands (London: Facet, 2008).
Published in New Library World, 110(3/4) 2009.

In Digital Consumers: Reshaping the Information Professions, editors David Nicholas and Ian Rowlands, both from the School of Library, Archive, and Information Studies, University College London, create a manifesto for survival in a “ubiquitous information environment, where information professionals and knowledge providers are no longer the dominant players nor, indeed, the supplier of first choice” (5). An international group of contributors discusses how the Internet’s massive information access has affected information professionals and how they must respond to remain viable. Topics include digital consumers in the information marketplace, libraries in the digital age, information consumption trends, and the psychology and behaviors of digital consumers with a special emphasis on Generation Y.

The authors consist of members of the Centre for Information Behaviour and the Evaluation of Research (CIBER), University College London, including Maggie Fieldhouse, Paul Huntington, and Peter Williams, and their associates: Tom Dobrowolski of Warsaw University, Hamid R. Jamali of Tarbiat Moallem University in Tehran, Iran, and Richard Withey, former global director of interactive media for Independent News and Media.

The editors specifically employ the term “digital consumers” because all information users “…are fundamentally consumers, and learn their habits in the wider marketplace—a whole new level of expectation is being established through instant access, downloadability, the ability to time-shift consumption and involvement in the creative process” (30). Online shopping has so significantly affected how information is utilized that consumers have started to demand that information be presented similarly to online stores. Given the phenomenal success of Amazon, why don’t more library catalogs look and perform like the online giant?

In the introductory chapter, Dobrowolski, Nicholas, Rowlands, and Withey write, “Because the internet is an encyclopedic, multi-purpose platform that people use, rather like a superstore, to obtain a whole range of things…it is now almost impossible to say what information is and what it is not, what is information seeking and what is not” (1). The boundaries between information professionals are also becoming less defined, and traditional gatekeepers of information are no longer needed as digital consumers undertake information-seeking work themselves. The essayists warn, “Disintermediation has triggered an information-seeking frenzy on a truly massive scale” (5). The absence of information professionals to vet sources along with a lack of information literacy skills creates an environment of information overload.

In “The ‘Google Generation’—Myths and Realities About Young People’s Digital Information Behaviour,” Fieldhouse, Rowlands, and Williams cite that increased technology has not improved information retrieval or evaluation skills. The authors find that young people are not more digitally savvy than older people. Information literacy throughout school may relieve this problem, but for many consumers, “convenience and user satisfaction will triumph, even over content, any day of the week” (214). Consumers will satisfice, a portmanteau of “satisfy” and “suffice,” rather than search for an optimal solution. The authors add, “What we know currently about the information-seeking behaviour of today’s young people and how their practices may impact on the role of information providers and the delivery mechanisms they put in place” (159).

A pivotal chapter, “The Information-Seeking Behaviour of the Digital Consumer: Case Study—the Virtual Scholar” by Dobrowolski, Huntington, Jamali, and Nicholas, is based on the 2001-2008 Virtual Scholar research program conducted by University College London’s CIBER group. Based upon eight years of deep log analysis techniques, the researchers gauged user satisfaction and information-seeking outcomes. The team analyzed the number of page views, downloads, journals used, repeat visits, and sessions of research; time spent viewing a page and in a session; content and format type; site penetration; and searching style. The study focused on “emergent, strategic digital information communities” and found that digital scholars act more like online shoppers and characterized their information seeking activities as “frenetic, promiscuous, volatile, and viewing in nature” (114). They found that users tend to enter search terms into Google, jump around a variety of sites, scan content and abstract pages, and leave. This contrasts established literature on information seeking. For instance, the study showed “bouncing,” a form of behavior where users view only one or two pages of a site, never to return again, which may be the result of poor information literary skills and lazy searching by users and poor content and design from content providers. As content choice and routes for finding content increase, bouncing will increase as well.

Digital Consumers: Reshaping the Information Professions provokes information professionals, especially librarians, to change their mindset regarding new information-seeking behaviors. The last chapter ends with the stimulating statement: “…never forget that [digital consumers] have choice, remember that we are all part of a much bigger information universe now…the information community must stop thinking that it knows best, otherwise it will be in danger of becoming irrelevant. The consumer knows best” (216). Knowledge workers should respond to this book as a call to action if they want to stay germane and adapt to the evolving digital environment of information production, categorization, management, distribution, and consumption.

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