How we pay for information and what we pay for is still a key issue. Dialog has adopted a new approach to service provision recently with pay-as-you-go portals, but DataStar users have been disappointed by DataStar's decision to impose an annual service fee and usage prepayment. With the range of web sites now available that provide information either free of charge or on a pay-as-you-go basis - for example Northern Light, Ft.com and Hoovers - the possibilities for the user with a limited budget are endless, and at the end of the day it is up to the user to make the choice. Flat-fee databases are a cost-effective alternative to DataStar and Dialog, depending on usage, but there is still the problem of accessing the smaller databases, which are not included. Is it worth maintaining subscriptions so that we have access to a limited number of databases not available elsewhere? Can we afford to spend hours trying to locate information that we know we could find within minutes on a commercial database which is known to be reliable and well indexed? The fee versus free debate also continues in the field of patent information. A great deal of information is now available free of charge, but Derwent believes that its fee-based services will still be in demand because of their quality indexing and search techniques. Web sites continue to proliferate, and indeed there is a continuing growth in useful sites. What I think is good about the Internet is the commitment to a knowledge-sharing culture. People are willing to share their expertise over the Net, so you have home pages that have developed into wide-ranging Internet guides - for example, Sheila Webber's business site. There is a profusion of specialist email newsletters on a wide range of topics. Search engines become more sophisticated but portal sites hosted by subject specialists are a viable alternative. So access to information is becoming easier. Will information professionals still have a role now that users have direct access to sites? I believe they will if they are skilled in marketing their services and in dealing with their customers, ensuring that they have a quality service tailored to their needs. We must continue to investigate new ways of adding value and exploiting the Internet to provide new services. Celia Hukins is Manager of the Aberdeen Business Shop, which is part of the partnership at Business Direct of Aberdeen Chamber of Commerce, Grampian Enterprise and Aberdeen Enterprise Trust, and provides a range of information services for business.
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