Google and the Librarian: Best Frenemies Forever
27/12/2013 § 8 Comments
I hope each one of you have had a happy holiday season, and warm wishes for a happy and healthy New Year!
Perhaps it’s the end of the year, or the end of the semester, but I’ve been reflecting quite a bit lately on my work over the past few months and trying to get a clearer picture of what lies ahead for me in LIS. Although I’ve met many wonderful, smart, hardworking people in my program and beyond, I’m worried about a certain lack of vision and ambition. We also seem to thrive on anxiety about changing technology and society, and all too often our responses sound like something out of The Desk Set: Big Bad Business wants to replace librarians with machines! They nearly succeed! But machines are flawed, and librarians save the day with their special human touch!
More than fifty-five years later, this storyline clearly continues to resonate with us. Yet I’m concerned that we’re still on the crisis phase, and I think an important task for us right now is to direct as much imagination as possible toward creating new roles for ourselves — what, exactly, do we bring to the table that an algorithm doesn’t?
This semester, I’ve seen that professional anxiety directed especially toward Google. In my core introductory class, we were assigned a final paper on Stephen Levy’s 2011 In the Plex: How Google Thinks, Works, and Shapes our Lives, and were asked to discuss the ramifications of Google for librarianship. Although the book has a positive spin, my class focused, almost to a person, on negative aspects of Google: privacy, poor search skills, and more. Google absolutely has its problems, but I believe we cannot continue to use it as a labor-saving device on the back end while decrying it as an evil empire devaluing our work on the front end. I have a lot of ideas about how we can think about our relationship to Google a bit more productively, but this post is really meant as a brainstorm-starter. I want to hear from you about how we, as a profession, can build off Google’s successes and add real value to the services they provide. Please add your thoughts in the comments — I’ll be checking in as often as my work schedule allows to foster the conversation — and please also note that my words, as always, do not necessarily reflect the views of Hack Library School as a whole.
After reading through Sergey Brin and Larry Page’s 1998 article introducing Google (it’s a good read, and surprisingly accessible — I recommend checking it out) I fundamentally believe that Google developed to tackle the exact same problems that librarians are trying to handle right now: information overload, reliability, discoverability, and neutrality. They’ve got exponentially smarter people on it (sorry, but it’s true), and they’ve figured out how to make gobsmacking loads of money from it. Whatever Google’s problems may be, it’s hard not to admire that.
Meanwhile, we’ve dug our own financial graves on the principle that we’re morally superior because we’re non-profit, and churned out countless flawed articles to “prove” that Google’s relevance algorithms just don’t have that same special quality that a human has. As righteous as it may sound, it isn’t a business model, and it isn’t making us particularly sustainable. That’s how we get Pew research results showing that 95% of Americans believe their library is “important”, but 52% believe they do not need libraries to get information because they can get the information elsewhere (read, Google). In the context of a capitalist society, it’s starting to look an awful lot like Google is objectively doing our jobs better than we are.
I would like to see us take a long, hard look at our business model and our ability to recruit, train, and incentivize the best, brightest, most creative minds. We also need to redefine our relationship to Google and think long and hard about what it is that Google doesn’t provide. A few thoughts include special collections preservation, exhibition, and scholarship; personalization without the violation of privacy and trust; scholarly communications; and literacy programming. We’ll need to convincingly add value to the products that Google does provide, and know our users well enough to figure out where the gaps are. It’s a big question for sure.
I’m looking forward to hearing your answers.