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Google Book Search and Knowledge Management

First of all, I have to say up front how much I enjoy the dialogue on Google Book Search that Siva and I seem to have going. It’s what I really enjoy about the blogosphere.

That said, I’m puzzled again.

Siva: “We need search engines. And we all need better organizational skills (see tagging etc.) But librarians are the best trained and best skilled. And they have spent about a century debating the ethical, economic, political, and technological ramifications of classification, organization, and presentation.”

Very true. But does it follow from the last statement — that we know a lot about the implications of classification — that we should default to allowing librarians presumptive control over the classification of printed knowledge? The fact that they are trained and skilled means that we have little to fear, true (though the socio-economic and political implications of classification apply equally strongly to classification by librarians), but the converse does not automatically follow — that the untrained and unskilled automatically or necessarily put us at risk. This is information content, not medicine. Most of the time, when it comes to information, Western tradition and policy reject concentrated control and enforces a distributed information creation and distribution model. That idea, among others, is part of the normative content of the First Amendment. We do, in fact, often trust the people to organize information for themselves. Suppose Google offered an interface that allowed Book Search users to tag results. Folksonomy, anyone?

Now as a practical matter, of course, people often can’t classify the world for themselves, which is why we have the robust scholarship on classification. People choose proxies — intermediaries. Newspapers. Search engines. And librarians, among others. Supervision and scrutiny? Librarians are “open” about their methods in the sense that we can see and hear them do their work, but there is no librarian accountability. My thoughts wander — serendipitously, as it happens — to Rebecca Tushnet’s comment about ontology (“sentimental rubbish”), which is on point here. Is it really a problem that Google is so secret? How closely does the government scrutinize the newsgathering and sorting activities of the New York Times? CBS News? The Daily Show? boingboing? I’m struggling with my intuition that Google’s “secrecy” isn’t really all that different from other kinds of intermediary “secrecy.” I’m still not persuaded that the anti-Google argument doesn’t have “librarians are special” at its core. I’m happy to agree that librarians are special, but I don’t think that argument is enough to carry the day here.

If that isn’t provocative enough, let me throw in another phrase that (I’m told) strikes a similar chord: Knowledge Management. I have friends in business schools who study KM systems, which companies and their employees use to keep track of what they know. Feed the database with customer or service information, and the next customer or service rep can learn from prior experience, instead of repeating the same mistakes. The best KM systems are “intelligent,” in the sense that they are organized dynamically, rather than according to ex ante categories. I’m told — but those more in the know than I will correct me — that KM is a verboten subject among the traditional library crowd. True? If so, why? Put this a different way: Is Google Book Search simply a giant-sized KM application?

11 thoughts on “Google Book Search and Knowledge Management”

  1. Regarding classification, I’d suggest looking at the issues involved in cataloging. Cataloging is complex, but I believe necessary. Librarians have been doing it longer than anyone else. That doesn’t give them exclusive control over the subject. One of the things about it being open is that you can look it up if you’re so inclined to take the time to do so. The socio-economic and political implications of classification do indeed apply to librarians, and librarians involved in classification are very aware of that issue. The debates about subject headings are easy exmaples of this awareness.

    “Most of the time, when it comes to information, Western tradition and policy reject concentrated control and enforces a distributed information creation and distribution model.” I think that the veracity of this statement depends on what kind of information you’re looking at. Libraries have been part of Western tradition for a very long time.

    I’m still not persuaded that the anti-Google argument has anything to do with “librarians are special,” but that might be because I’ve lost track of what the argument actually is. If you are referring to the argument that “Google is not a library nor a substitue for a library,” then I can sort of see where you’re coming from, although I do believe my statement in quotes. I don’t see the issue as entirely related to the other arguments about Google.

    Librarian accountability is another issue. I do believe that librarians are more accountable and more transparent than Google is. I’m also struggling with your intuition. ^_^

    I’ve never heard that KM is verbotem among the library crowd- quite the contrary, really. It was a subject we studied while I was at school, and I know of courses that teach parts of KM theory and development, although it wasn’t my area of interest.

  2. Nobody is suggesting a librarian autocracy over classification and organization any more than anyone is suggesting that only fire fighters put out fires.

    My point is that it is stupid and counterproductive for the very people who do things best (the publicly-minded and accountable professionals) willingly sign over control to an unaccountable private entity.

  3. Can you explain the accountability of librarians as professionals? That’s what I’m still puzzled by. What does “accountable” mean? Accountable to whom? Accountable for what?

  4. First and foremost, librarians are accountable to their professional code of ethics and standards. Their profession enforces essential norms that bolster openness and fairness and value preservation and access.

    Second, academic librarians answer to the faculty of their respective universities.

    Third, public academic librarians must serve the taxpayers of the states that employ them. They have the same ties of accountability that any other public employee has.

  5. Well, all of those mechanism sound good in theory, but how do they hold up in practice?

    Who enforces the librarians’ code and norms, and how frequently are enforcement mechanisms invoked? That sounds like self-policing to me — which can be a suspicious thing.

    Faculty have an important university governance role — in theory; in practice they’re usually pretty indifferent. When was the last time a university librarian was called on the Faculty Senate carpet? And who are faculty accountable to?

    Public employees are rarely really accountable to anyone, except in a crisis or a scandal.

    Again, I’m not dismissing librarians; they’ve done heroic work. But the “Google isn’t accountable, librarians are” argument isn’t impressing me.

  6. This was not my area, but this is my limited understanding of how some of these issues play out, in brief. I hope someone with more specific information chimes in.

    In the US, the MLIS and related library degrees are given by schools accredited by the Amercian Library Association. The accreditation policies, procedures, and reports are available here:

    Schools go up for reaccreditation on a periodic basis- six or seven years, I forget off the top of my head.

    There is a large community of different but related professional assocations beyond that, for libraries, archives, and other information-related professions. Such organizations include the Society for American Archivists, the Special Libraries Association, state Library Associations, and other groups.

    Not all librarians are public librarians, and not everyone who is called a librarian has the accredited degree (although most do).

    The workings of public or academic library is more transparent than a private corporation in a number of ways. The classification standards used are accessible by anyone, including MARC and AACR2 cataloging standards. The development of these standards is an open process. There are also international norms associated with the sharing of information, and policies developed by the Library of Congress. If someone wants to look, although there are certain investments in time and effort, they are able to.

    University library records are also subject to laws such as open records acts, which is how we initially saw Google’s contract with the University of Michigan.

    I view the transparency of public libraries in this discussion similar to open source software and how it differs from proprietary software, although the analogy is not completely accurate.

  7. Also, I should note- I do have an ALA accredited degree, and I have attended a school that was going through the accreditation process, and I work at an ALA accredited institution.

  8. Thanks for all of that information. I was aware generally that professional librarians have advanced academic training and belong to professional associations, but I didn’t have all of the detail.

    Two more questions that aren’t answered by the comment:

    What happens to a librarian when she/he violates the norms of the discipline? Is there some mechanism for imposing sanctions or another remedy on the individual? Or on the institution (i.e., on the library that misbehaves, or employs the librarian that misbehaves)?

    Is the general public entitled to participate in discussions regarding changes to classification standards?

  9. Pingback: » Google’s Values

  10. As far as I know, there is no accountability or sanctions per se once the degree has been received. I know that some states may require continuing education for certain positions, but that is not necessarily the case everywhere.

    I believe the general public is entitled to participate in discussions regarding changes to classification standards. AACR2 is currently under major revision. The official FAQ answers some questions here:

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