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One Unanswered Question on Google

Siva’s post on the alleged inability of Google Book Search to accomplish what Google Book Search claims to do reminds me to ask a question — not of Siva, but of all those who oppose Google Book Search as a matter of pro-librarian/pro-library public policy:

It seems to me, on anecdotal evidence, that the pro-librarian/pro-library public policy is founded in part on the belief that librarians — and only librarians — can adequately search and provide “knowledge” to the untrained masses. That if we turn ordinary souls loose on digital “stacks,” armed only with a search engine, that they will be utterly lost. Is that right? The question is this: What’s wrong with letting people loose in the digital “stacks” armed only with a search engine? When I go to big research libraries, I *like* to wander around in the (print) stacks — armed only with the Dewey Decimal system and the ability to follow my nose. I learn stuff. Stuff I didn’t plan to learn. Stuff that I neither needed nor wanted a librarian to point me to. I don’t have anything against librarians. I’ve had librarians in my family, and they were perfectly wonderful people (though no more or less wonderful than the journalists, gym teachers, hairdressers, professors, auto mechanics, environmental scientists, etc. etc. who I also have or have had in my family). Do we need to stop Google to save librarians? If so, why?

(P.S. By the way, I tried to use Google to find Cory Doctorow’s book — as Siva said, a science fiction novel with “magic kingdom” in the title. I typed: “science fiction magic kingdom.” And Cory’s book came up #1.)

7 thoughts on “One Unanswered Question on Google”

  1. I just tried a one-word search on Google Book Search – namely, “Doctorow.” Cory’s Down and Out … is the first result. It’s also repeated down the list another two or three spaces. Interestingly, Cory Doctorow’s books are six of the top seven results.

  2. Again- I’m not a librarian, but I am pro-librarian. To answer your last question, I don’t think so.

    I don’t believe that you need to stop Google to save librarians, because I don’t believe that Google serves as a replacement for libraries. I believe that even if all information in the world was available digitally, there would still be a place for librarians. I’m not anti-Google, either- I use Google constantly. I also use libraries, though. ^_^ In my day to day activities, I use Google more than the library. Really, it depends on what I’m doing.

    I don’t think that the pro-librarians crowd is quite as elitist? as your anecdotal evidence would indicate. I certainly don’t believe, nor know any librarians who belive, that librarians are the sole gatekeepers or intermediaries of information. Librarians opened the stacks. I do believe that some librarians can find information on a subject better than non-librarians, myself included in that latter category (particularly those librarians in reference, though note that not all librarians are reference librarians). The browsing experience, which some people describe as information encountering, is also important. Also recognize, however, that while librarians do help provide access to information, they do other things as well which are related to access. Examples include cataloging, preservation and conservation.

    Let people loose in the “stacks,” and I’m sure most librarians would think that it’s a wonderful idea. That’s great. Most physical libraries have open stacks, with the full support of librarians. That’s generally how I find information as well. I don’t go a librarian very often to find information, although I certainly know people who rely on librarians for that service. It’s just not what I do, although I make it a point to not undervalue librarians who do reference work because people really do use and need those services.

    Looking at my personal library behavior, I rely on librarians to make sure that the collection has the information I’m looking for, to provide cataloging information so I can find the things that I’m looking for whether or not they’re in the collection, to provide access to information that I cannot afford on my own, to provide a space for me to do research, to get the information for me when it’s not in the collection, to answer questions I may have about the history of an item, to answer questions I might have about other concerns, and probably other things that I’m not thinking of off the top of my head. ^^; Those are examples of ways I’ve used the library recently.

    I don’t think anyone is arguing in this situation that search engines aren’t good. They are. Problems can come when people do not recognize the limits of search engines.

    Keyword searching is also a very good thing. It’s not always the best or only way to find information. Here’s an anecdotal example that came up yesterday.

    My wife, who works in a serials cataloging department as a parprofessional, is interested in researching Catherine Parr, last wife of Henry VIII. She’s searched, and found, a great deal of information online. She used various search engines, Amazon and other book vendors for books, followed links, and so on. The search was more difficult to some extent than a standard search because the spelling of Parr’s name is not standardized. When she was searching for books, she did not find many books until she went to the catalog, where there were standard subject headings and contextual information she could use to find the information. Both the search engine and the catalog search were important to her research. They were not exclusive of each other.

    To some extent, this discussion is touching on the issues of authenticity and authoritativeness, which are also issues in libraries and other cultural institutions. That is a whole other can of worms, though.

    I’m not saying that opposing Google Search is a pro-library, pro-librarian public policy. In fact, in the fair use argument, I support Google. I think what they’re doing should be legal. I think their contract with the library could have been much better for the library than it was, but that’s another issue. I also think that libraries are better caretakers of information than Google is, for reasons I’ve mentioned before.

    I’m saying that recognizing some of the problems that may come with Google’s project is important when looking at public policy, emphasis on the public. Libraries do things that Google cannot do, and provide access that Google cannot provide. Even for this project, for one example, while Google can help me find the book, there’s a decent chance I’ll only be able to read the book in its entirety at a library. Again, I don’t think they’re necessarily exclusive of one another.

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  4. Michael,

    The point is that when librarians use metadata and search strategies they do so openly.

    When Google does it, it does so secretly.

    Google will get better, no doubt. But in the mean time, who is making sure it is doing well at all?

  5. cjovalle says it well up above.

    Google Book Search doesn’t replace libraries or librarians, and isn’t intended to. It should create an interesting complementary means for people to find books–not to replace library catalogs, but to complement them. Turns out it doesn’t do much of anything for digital preservation (because, as a Google has now stated, the scans aren’t preservation quality), but that doesn’t make it worthless.

    My note is a little simpler: If you’re exploring the stacks of large research libraries, a knowledge of Dewey will rarely do you much good. A working knowledge of the LC call number system would be more valuable, since that’s what most academic/research libraries use.

    [I’m not a librarian either, but I’m active in the field.]

  6. Walt,

    You’re right about LC call numbers; that’s a good correction. I was speaking metaphorically, but I should have picked an accurate metaphor.


    The ground seems to have shifted (earlier it was: universities and libraries should be encouraged to fulfill their core missions on their own; at times it was: Google is a profit-maximizing commercial zealot; now it’s: Google can’t be trusted), and I’m not sure I follow.

    “When librarians use metadata and search strategies they do so openly.” Not completely, I think; I can certainly engage in a conversation with a librarian about search strategies, but I can’t get inside a librarian’s head. At some fundamental level, when I rely on a librarian, I have to rely on the librarian’s training. If I’m dissatisfied with librarian #1, I can always go to librarian #2, and so on, so there is a sort of transparency, but at the end of the day that training isn’t accessible to me. I have to trust the discipline.

    Is Google materially different? Google’s algorithm is proprietary, and it’s far less transparent than a librarian’s professional training. Searching with Google can be an awkward and frustrating experience, but so can working with a librarian, or any human professional. On the other hand, I’m willing to suppose that consumers and book searchers can and do learn from the experience with search engines — just as they learn from dealing with librarians, and just as librarians learn from patrons. I’m a more effective Google-searcher than I used to be; are you? Yet I know nothing more about PageRank than I used to. Do I worry that Google is steering me wrong when I surf the internet? No.

    Now, you might argue: I’m uncommon; lots of people take search engine results uncritically and misuse them. And that’s true; the question is, partly, empirical: On balance, are “people” (and you have to bracket the term here) more likely to learn and make productive use of search engines, or are they more likely to rely uncritically on them? My intuition — and it’s only intuition — that in other parts of the internet, we’ve seen a lot of learning over the last decade.

    Who’s watching Google? No one, I guess, except Google users themselves. Who’s watching librarians (other than Homeland Security)? Professional discipline keeps librarians motivated, and that’s great, but I’m not aware of any board that investigates claims of librarian malpractice. Google is far from perfect, and no one should hand Google the keys to the Kingdom. But I don’t think that’s happening here.


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