Who Are These Independent Information Brokers?

by Susanne Bjorner

Readers of this special issue of the Bulletin of the American Society for Information Science who are not members of the Association of Independent Information Professionals (AIIP) might well wonder what an "independent" information professional is and how that differs from other information professionals. There are probably as many perspectives on this question as there are practitioners. Here is one.

I am by training and profession a librarian, an occupation that I considered "professional" even before my graduate school education and its seemingly endless consideration of the sociological characteristics of a profession. I have worked for over 20 years in providing library and information services in various settings, including school, public, academic and special libraries, in not-for-profit and profit-making organizations, in private and governmental settings, and in agencies that operate at local, state, national and international levels.

During the past 10 years, I have been independent, i.e., self-employed, for at least half of my work-related time; during the past four years I've been self-employed full-time. I am a member of ASIS and of AIIP, as well as other local, regional and national information associations, including the American Library Association and Special Libraries Association. Clearly, to me at least, my commitment to the information professions is not at question. I could no sooner leave the occupation of creating, gathering, organizing, storing, evaluating, presenting and disseminating information in various ways than I could sever my relationship with the country of my birth.

There are those of my colleagues who suggest that AIIP members, in establishing owner-operated, for-profit information enterprises that offer information services to clients, are establishing a new profession, but I am not one of them. Since I come from a library and information sciences background and have experienced great diversity of work experiences in it, I have never felt that I was creating a new profession. I have simply transferred my field of operations from a single organization bounded by walls with a defined mission and user population and a fairly consistent funding authority, to an open arena with no definition from walls and no consistent funding authority, an arena that is continually defined and re-defined by multiple and varying clients and my responses to them.

Who are the clients of independent information professionals? Many independents serve businesses and the professions directly, providing information services or products ranging from research on demand to market or research analysis to software products. Others serve libraries and information centers by providing publications for the profession, consulting services, or temporary staffing on- or off-site. There is a large virtual network within the independent information professional community which encourages subcontracting among members when one independent has the client but doesn't have the time or special expertise to perform the work. Thus, independent information professionals are often clients of fellow independent information professionals.

An important distinguishing fact of independent work is that we almost always have multiple clients and perform multiple projects simultaneously, but all clients want, and think they are paying for, our full attention. Balancing among those clients when the crunch comes is what turns the ideal of being your own boss into the dilemma of being your own boss. When projects conflict, for reasons ranging from misjudging the time allotment to "acts of God," no one else besides the boss can set priorities or make decisions about what to do to get the jobs done as promised and satisfy the clients.

Most of our businesses start small, as one- or two-person operations, in the legal form of a sole proprietorship or partnership or, less often, as an incorporated entity. But goals, size, legal forms and operating style of the business tend to be re-evaluated and redefined as both the business and its owner(s) mature.

As we develop our businesses, some of us choose to build companies that target one or two aspects of the information market: providing research services, document delivery, seminars and training, writing and publishing, or software development. Others prefer to manage on a broader scale, balancing more activities across the information spectrum. I am one of the latter. I find enjoyment and professional fulfillment in tackling projects that involve, for example, doing research and analysis on an emerging technology, writing for information industry publications, and designing and delivering customized training on information management techniques to a corporate client. Usually I'm juggling several types of projects simultaneously, but at other times I have the luxury of devoting my time to just one or two projects for short, consecutive periods of time. Sometimes I even manage this "leisure" without worrying about when the next assignment will come!

Some of these enterprises have already grown large enough to employ and pay salaries and benefits to several people and to make significant contributions within the total information arena. Some have grown attractive enough to merge with or be sold to major players within the information industry. More will achieve this growth over the next few years.

An early and lasting variation within AIIP is the one between members who have a background in the library/information environment and those whose experience is in other disciplines, professions or businesses and whose interests and abilities have subsequently pulled them in the direction of information-related endeavors. Although the majority of members do share the culture of the library/information profession, some are newcomers to it.

From its founding days, AIIP has focused attention on discussions of ethics. AIIP members accept a code of ethical business practice that addresses issues involved in providing research services in what has come to be traditionally called the "information brokerage" context. The code can be useful in bridging the cultural gaps that are inevitable when individuals come from varied experiences by providing common expectations of behavior. (See accompanying box.)

As more independent information professionals develop multiple client and product bases, however, their interactions and influence extend beyond the information brokerage realm. I have found the ASIS Professional Guidelines most helpful when called upon to balance the several clients and involved relationships that co-exist in my own business and profession. To quote, "ASIS recognizes the plurality of uses and users of information technologies, services, systems and products, as well as the diversity of goals or objectives, sometimes conflicting, among producers, vendors, mediators and users of information systems. . . . ASIS members have obligations to employers, clients, system users, to the profession and to society. . . ."

These Guidelines acknowledge the varying constituencies that information professionals have, even when employed by a single institution.

ASIS members who have acknowledged the multiplicity of roles they play are uniquely qualified to understand the environment in which independent information professionals work. They know that just because an independent information professional operates in a business environment, it does not mean that the individual's commitment to the information professions is any less. Indeed, as libraries and information companies move beyond walls, reassess their missions and customers, and acknowledge and deal with new economic realities, they are experiencing many of the same situations that independents have already encountered.

Susanne Bjorner, an independent information professional based in Woodbury, Connecticut, is a charter member and past president of AIIP. These reflections are the result of her observations of the association, her own and other businesses, and the profession and do not necessarily represent the views of AIIP.

Association of Independent Information Professionals

Code of Ethical Business Practice

An independent information professional is an information entrepreneur who has demonstrated continuing expertise in the art of finding and organizing information. The independent information professional provides information services on a contractual basis to more than one client. Information professionals serve as objective intermediaries between the client and the information world.

They bear the following responsibilities:

  1. To uphold the profession's reputation for honesty, competence and confidentiality.
  2. To give clients the most current and accurate information possible.
  3. To help a client understand the sources of information used and the degree of reliability which can be expected of them.
  4. To accept only those projects which are legal and are not detrimental to our profession.
  5. To respect client confidentiality.
  6. To honor intellectual property rights and to explain to clients what their obligations may be.
  7. To maintain a professional relationship with libraries and comply with all their rules of access.
  8. To assume responsibility for employees' compliance with this code.
Approved by the membership May 5, 1989, at the Third National Conference and Annual Meeting in Lowell, Massachusetts.

Amended by the membership April 22, 1990, at the Fourth National Conference and Annual Meeting in San Francisco, California.