Skip to content

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?