High-quality information services to users as the fundamental necessity for building a modern information society in the European Union
Institute of Library and Information Science, Jagiellonian University
This article was translated thanks to the grant received from the Open Society Institute
There are various definitions and features of the term 'Information Society' given by authors who deal with this subject. The term that was first used in Japan has become so widespread now that scarcely anybody probes into its real meaning, although it is being used in so many contexts, also when indicating the goals of, for example, reference services. Rogers states that "information work" predominates in such a society, and knowledge is the main resource that replaces the capital in this respect (Rogers, 1986). Not pursuing the subject further, one can comment Rogers' statement in the following way: information workers are thus in the centre of "events" of building up such a society, what sounds encouraging and stimulates our plans for the development of our branch and our activities.
What is then the relation between the Information Society and the notion of quality that is being discussed during this conference? The quality of information services is a necessary condition for the Polish society to be called a mature Information Society. It should also contribute to accelerating the transformation, retraining the users of information and their adjusting to a new occupation, and to the speeding up of communication.
The level of quality cannot be defined once and for all, since both the criteria and evaluation methods, as well as the assessment of the results achieved, may change. This is caused by various factors, for example technological, political, economic, as well as the ones connected with the community in which and for whom information services work. It is crucial that these varying criteria and methods, as well as the dissimilarity in the level of the quality achieved by a given country, are taken into account when aiming at adopting the international standards on the quality of information work. Countries differ in living standards they achieve, in the level of education, and the way they introduce innovations. Setting the goal is of fundamental importance, since its accomplishment or failure to reach it may be treated as a basis for quality assessment. Jacek Wojciechowski writes: "[...] the goal is the main reason for every action to be taken and put into practice
in library practice, and sometimes also in theory, the main, final goal is often understood to be a mere use of a medium or a library without taking into account the communication results. It is a faulty approach, since there can be no use for the sake of use, or reception for the sake of reception. It must have a certain effect after all." (Wojciechowski, pp.37-38). The final goal for every information institution may be slightly different. It is also possible to realise multiple goals, but when discussing some general problems relating to local communities that are to become an information society, defining the quality of performance must be of a general character. It is easier to evaluate the performance of one institution, one information service, and it is obviously more difficult to do it with reference to, for example, the whole country, and even more difficult when assessing information provision in a global network which is the internet.
Thus we perceive quality as a kind of a model that is being followed, and it is possible that it can never be attained. Whereas a certain level of quality which has been previously set has to be reached, otherwise we would be threatened with a slowing down of the development, and we would fall into a state of torpor. Therefore quality must be revised on a regular basis, and we should always measure high. From Tom Peters' sentence saying that "Revolution in quality means eating, sleeping, and breathing with quality" (Melling, 1998) we can deduce that one cannot expect any effects and attainment of goals without taking interest in quality. Not only information managers, but all information workers must think of and be interested in quality standards.
Many methods and tools for measuring quality have already been worked out (for example TQM, benchmarking, the SWOT method). They are being discussed during today's conference. Now I would like to raise a question for discussion: What makes for the quality of information services offered by libraries and information institutions, and how to reach a required level of quality? The issues that should be touched on in this discussion are: information management, technological level, information workers' expertise, identification and satisfaction of user needs, user competencies in using information resources, working conditions for users, as well as the evaluation of the quality of traditional and electronic information, with special emphasis on databases and the internet.
The above issues will be discussed primarily from the point of view of the users of information, and not information providers, since the users are the ones to evaluate the quality of services in the first place. However, it must be kept in mind that the interests of information users and information workers are not always convergent, and sometimes they are even contradictory.
The information management system should embrace all subject-related and administrative issues, and appropriate quality should be kept up with reference to every element of the system in order to maintain its stability. The problems to tackle are: the selection of sources of information, provision of hardware and software that would suit the users' needs, the choice of modern work methods, the staffing policy and staff education, training information users, and finally the proper allocation of finances, as well as looking for financial resources necessary for the development of a given institution. Promotional and marketing activities are also crucial for achieving the appropriate level of quality. The quality of services should be continuously researched, and, basing on the results, every effort should be done to improve information work. All these factors affect the evaluation of the quality of information work and the way a given institution is perceived by its users.
It is obvious that information resources and those who use these resources in order to provide information to users are the most crucial for the quality of information services. With an enormous growth of traditional and electronic information resources, and information institutions being limited by finance, one of the solutions is to form consortia that would participate in the shared purchase of library materials and use of information resources. The next important step which is often ignored would be to adequately manage the library collections. This means, first of all, the acquisition policy, probing into the needs of users, recognition of the publishing market, choosing the best and the cheapest agents, purchases made at a proper time, using mediating skills when cooperating with the consortia partners. However, the quality of acquisition policy has a deeper meaning which is not enough explored yet, for example by Polish libraries and information centres. In the United States some users keep complaining that when studying their subject-related literature they come across some false data. It is most common with unpublished works, such as master's theses and doctoral dissertations, that are often not being thoroughly verified by thesis or dissertation advisers. Untrue data may also occur in research reports, and sometimes they may be found in published works.
P.Hernon and E.Altman from the United States addressed the problem of intended falsification of research results, and its implication for the quality of services provided by academic libraries. The authors state that one should sort out some unintended mistakes that can be found in research reports from intended misinformation. Charles Babbage, a British mathematician from Cambridge, was the one to name three types of fraud: trimming (for example dropping high and low data points), cooking (selecting only the data that fit the hypothesis), and forging (inventing data). This intended disinformation may be due to the lack of professional competence of authors, lack of responsibility, unethical conduct, negligence in calculating and checking the data. This leads naturally to passing on of mistakes and distortions in the scientific research field. The research on this subject was carried out at the Arcadia Institute, and it covered 2000 postgraduate students and 2000 researchers in chemistry, land and water engineering, microbiology, and sociology. The results showed that 40 per cent of engineering workers and sociologists came across plagiarism while reading students' papers, and 12 per cent of microbiologists stated they had similar experience (Hernon, Altman).
Thus we are treading on thin ice. We have to address the questions: Is it possible for an information worker to find out such mistakes in professional texts? How can an information institution prevent such a situation? Then we touch upon the issues of ethics, censorship, the freedom of information, accountability. However, one thing is certain, information workers should confront users with this problem and warn them no to use false data. It is well known among information workers that students write their papers basing on entries from encyclopaedias, abstracts, some unverified texts found on the internet, or they even borrow master's theses and doctoral dissertations to copy them or extract some of the fragments to incorporate them into their texts. Once again we have to ask the question: How far can an information worker intervene? Obviously the quality of information resources is crucial for the evaluation of information services to users.
Providing access to information resources
When speaking about accessing information resources we have to bear in mind that these resources should be accurately described, i.e. catalogued and indexed in traditional and electronic form, so that they can serve primarily the users, and in the second place the information workers. Considering that many libraries, especially big academic libraries, have OPACS, it is important to provide a usable interface. Users should be able to find out the items they are looking for by themselves, without asking the information workers for help.
An information worker
When evaluating the quality of information services to users, information workers are the ones to play crucial role. Competence, accountability, interpersonal skills of librarians when dealing with customers, as well as such features of their behaviour as: kindness, politeness, and discretion contribute to improving the quality of information services to customers. (A conversation overheard on a bus. A secondary school student says: "I walked into a public library to borrow a book, something to read during holidays. I chose one, and saw it had some loose leaves. Out of about 300 pages, some 200 completely loose. I was afraid that should I read it outdoors, its leaves might get blown away by the wind. So I came up to the two librarians who were there, and drinking coffee. Before I had time to open my mouth, one of them told me good night, and then corrected herself and told me good evening. They were so lost in conversation, that they took no notice of me. I asked whether they had any other copy of the book. They did not have. So I borrowed this book and wondered whether the librarians could not at least stick together the leaves when drinking their coffee. Unfortunately, it is not a positive picture of a librarian or a library in the eyes of the user.)
It is also important that an information worker be patient when giving information. In the professional literature there are many accounts of users not being able to define what they are looking for, and which collection, database, website to search in order to find out the information which could be of interest to him or her. The way the information provider is talking to the user plays a significant role. There are different forms of information provision: in person, by phone, fax, e-mail or letters. Although this last form is unpopular now, some reference questions are still sent in by mail, also from abroad. If an information worker treats users seriously, it is essential that he or she devotes much attention to dealing with users' queries. The answer should always be precise, exhaustive, and written correctly. All this is common knowledge, so it seems pointless to elaborate on it here. When evaluating quality one should also take into consideration the information worker's professional background.
The place where information is provided also affects the quality of information services to users. The décor of the room, the space, the colour of walls, and flowers make for the quality of information reception. When evaluating the services one should also consider the following: the opening hours of the institution, the atmosphere created in a given room, the temperature and the light in the room, a comfortable place to sit for users who want to use the collection or work with computers, and last but not least, maintaining silence that allows for concentration.
Databases and their quality
Information workers have to ensure that both traditional and electronic information sources adhere to quality standards. Therefore, when making decisions about the database purchase, one should thoroughly consider the following aspects: credibility of the database (author's accountability), the content of the database, its currentness, the process of updating it, as well as the usability of interfaces. Whether a given database will store a big amount of data over a long period of time (persistance) is also taken into consideration when evaluating it. On the one hand there should be a multi-user concurrent access to data (concurrency) in a variety of formats (CD, Web), and on the other hand they should be secured from unauthorised access (authorisation) and protected from damage (the possibility of data recovery). It is important to ensure that the quality of data recording is high and the database programme is easily accessible. These are only some of the features that have to be considered when evaluating the quality of this source of information.
The internet as an information source and an information tool
The immense power of the global network arises mainly from the speed of access to information it provides, and the amount of information it contains. It is because of the spontaneous growth of the Web that we need to evaluate the quality of information. Information workers, when offering this kind of services, should inform users not only about the advantages of the Web, but also about the threats it poses. When making the evaluation one should:
- ascertain the author, his/her credentials, occupation, position, expertise, objectivity, credibility, originality, etc.;
- verify all information (compare the facts in other sources);
- check whom the information is targeted at, where it is published (several sources should be checked out, as well as reviews of online directories, and other works by the same author (Brandt, 2001).
When speaking about the information society and such issues as the process of joining the European Union and the necessity to work out performance standards, one also ponders about globalisation problems. Does globalisation always mean the same approach to quality? Will not there be better and worse standards? Is it a good situation? Will not such standards be, of necessity, too general. I think that standards may only serve as some kind of hints on the level of performance that would allow for the proper evaluation of services. It is obvious that each user will look for better and quicker information, and cheaper services. Therefore, it will allow for the growth of competition on the information services market. In this case globalisation will not hinder those who strive to be the best.
- Brandt, Scott D., Why we need to evaluate what we find on the Internet. 2001.
- Follett Report. Chapter 8 - Summary of Specific Recommendations.
- Głowacka, Ewa: Studium zastosowania kompleksowego zarządzania jakością (TQM) w bibliotekoznawstwie i informacji naukowej, Toruń, 2000.
- Hernon, P. and E. Altman: Misconduct in academic research: its implications for the service quality provided by university libraries, "Journal of Academic Librarianship", 1995, vol.21, no.1, pp.27-37.
- Kocójowa, M. (ed.), Społeczeństwo informacyjne. Jakość edukacji i pracy bibliotekarzy, Cracow 2001.
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- Rogers, Everett M., Communication technology: the new media in society, New York, London 1986.
- Standards for College Libraries 2000 Edition,
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Translated by Michalina Byra