This post is a response to a conversation about IBM Watson’s significance for reference librarianship begun by Andy Woodworth on his excellent blog Agnosticmaybe.

First, I want to thank Andy for taking up this subject. I, too was surprised at the lack of response from librarians re:Watson. Also like Andy, I’m high on this technology, and look forward to its implementation in a library context. However, I’m far less confident that it won’t be a significant disruptor for the library profession. In fact, I’d be willing to bank that it will be a game changer. We’ve time and again seen in contests between electronic v. analog resources–as Watson is an electronic resource to the reference librarian’s analog–digital convenience wins out against analog quality as long as the loss in quality is with acceptable parameters. Funds follow the user, so if 80% of people prefer to direct their questions to Watson’s more sophisticated successor, doesn’t it become so much harder to financially justify having three reference librarians on the payroll instead of two? Or eventually–as the iterations of the software progress and the system gets sufficiently adept–just one who verifies the answers. And how challenging would it be to convince administrators that answer verifiers need to be tenure track faculty, with terminal graduate degrees? That’s not a fight I want to see play out in system after system because it’s not one we would consistently win.

Consider also, Watson’s successor (Shera, Dewey, or whatever catchy name vendors come up with) wouldn’t have to reside in the library. Given trends in distributed computing and mobile access, t will reside in the cloud and manifest wherever the user is. That means one fewer reason to step foot in the library. Diminishing foot traffic means more pressure on justifying the presence of expensive physical libraries. If a cheaper and easier digital system comes along, how could it fail to cause disruption in the dominance of its analog equivalent? Maybe Dewey won’t be exactly as good as an experienced reference librarian, but honestly, we can’t afford to sit around hoping that it won’t become say¬† 75% as good. For that matter, after watching Watson torch Ken freaking Jennings in his bailiwick, I’m not so sure that in time Dewey wouldn’t be able to torch us in ours, in terms of information retrieval.

Still, I truly am excited about this technology, because if implemented widely it has the potential to revolutionize user interfaces and information retrieval; an integral step in problem solving. Anything that helps us solve our species’ mounting problems quickly and efficiently is a welcomed thing. That said, I also am excited about librarians, and the future of librarianship, but only if we realize that Watson’s victory is our “Sputnik moment”. It provides us with a reason to reflect now, before we’re no longer the only game in town, on what we really offer to our learning communities. What makes us most special, and how can we accentuate and promote those things? Instead of taking a business-as-usual stance on this, I think we need to recognize that Watson is a real wake up call for a profession that’s been asleep at the wheel for some time now.

Ask the scribes. Adapt or perish, That’s the name of the game.

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