A legacy to those who are yet unborn*

15 February 2008

In their recent book Libraries and Google, Miller and Pellen (2005) remind us that:

‘not so long ago Google did not even exist’ (p 1).

Why do they need to emphasise this point? Is it because we never think about Google, and therefore have to be reminded of its existence? Hardly. On the contrary, it has become almost impossible for us to live through the day without Google. I should keep statistics on how often in the course of my daily duties I hit Ctrl+K (keyboard shortcut for the search bar in Firefox) and type in a word or phrase. When I’m creating records for the Swinburne Research Bank, there’s a good chance it’s over 200 times a day — and that’s only when I can’t find the information elsewhere.

Actually, I just searched Google then to find a page of browser shortcuts. A quick finger flick, and I barely even noticed I did it, but nonetheless it happened. For me, blogging is a bit like research; I make a claim, either reasonable or outrageous, and then I have to find someone else’s words to substantiate it. We humans are sadly afflicted by the herd mentality; we don’t often believe in our own validity until someone else confirms it.

Many librarians reject this notion; they consider themselves to be shepherds rather than sheep, guiding the unthinking herds towards greener pastures in the pursuit of more (brain) food. Brandishing bibliographic databases, scholarly resources and centuries of tradition, their crook can be a heavy one. Such an superior attitude unfortunately alienates many potential library users.

No wonder so many people gravitate towards Google. It appears less aggressive, it requires no intermediary and it moves at users’ own pace — to all intents and purposes, Google is the perfect shepherd.

(‘Del’, from marj_k’s Flickr photos and reproduced under a Creative Commons Licence)

Librarians’ tendency towards academic snobbery makes many users look upon us not as benevolent shepherds, but as a pack of middle-aged, bespectacled sheepdogs snapping at their heels and barking endlessly about scholarly traditions. In an age where the constant availability of the Web encourages us to cut out the middle man, this puts librarians in a dangerous position. It’s no surprise, then, that many librarians consider teaming with Google to help build Google Book Search a betrayal of their loyalties.

As per Task 15, I had a little play with Google Books, but I decided in advance that I’d be unlikely to use the service very often. If I’m searching for details on a book for personal reasons, I use the Books iRead application on Facebook, or since I signed up for Task 8, LibraryThing. If I’m running a search on a book for work purposes (ie to create a metadata record), I need more detailed information than Google can give me, and this is best found through Libraries Australia, the online national bibliographic database hosted by the National Library of Australia in Canberra. When I’m searching for research by Swinburne authors on the history of Victoria’s premiers, the chances are that I’ll be looking for a text published here in Australia.

Since Google Books has no Australian library partners, even with the vast collections that have already been digitised, such as the New York Public Library and Harvard University Library, there is little hope of me finding specific local works in Google Books. Right?

Wrong.

I searched for ten books, all containing Australian content and most published here, and I found every one. Sure, there was only brief bibliographic information, and I couldn’t preview chapters from all of the books, but they were indisputably there, and all I had to enter to find them was the title of the work and sometimes an author name. Many of the citations I receive to create records for Swinburne Research Bank are sketchy, with only one author name and the (frequently incorrect) title of the work. The capacity for Google Books to provide useful information on Australian content is good news indeed for me — Google can, in fact, help me with my work. I’ve caught myself out being a librarian snob.

Many young school leavers about to embark on university careers are reluctant to use books as resources, and this is partly because of the absence of a keyword search. The attempt by Google Books to remedy this problem — that is, to help users find printed texts through keyword searches — is admirable, but leads, as Dana laments, to the loss of valued serendipity. I agree with this sentiment; I went downstairs yesterday to pick up a book, and found an even better one sitting on the shelf right next to it. How could that have happened if I’d never visited the library?

This is an inevitable shortcoming in an online book search, and we’ll have to live with it for a while. At the moment, the closest we have to online serendipitous browsing is the user recommendations on social sites like LibraryThing and Google Reader. Google Books’ MyLibrary function still has a long way to go, although it does have some great features like book clip embedding and popular passages. And for once, these even work in WordPress:

Obe Advancing Ill met by moonlight proud Titania

from The comedy of a midsummer night’s dream, by William Shakespeare

It is understandable that many librarians are suspicious of — or even openly hostile towards — Google. As long as Google remains the first port of call for simple ready reference questions, there will always be a fear that the search giant threatens the future of our profession. Yet I’m a new librarian, with potentially another 40-odd years in the workforce, and I’m not worried at all. I maintain that there will always be plenty of scope for a librarian’s professional skills, even if this may not necessarily be in the traditional context. We need to remember our expertise and our mission — to help our users gain access to as much useful information as possible — and to bear in mind that if anything, the expansion of the internet makes our role more crucial than ever. Assuming that Google can’t help us or our users in our quests for knowledge is naive. To put it into perspective, even with enforced legal deposit laws in Australia, Libraries Australia still only houses 42 million records, while the University of California alone can contribute 34 million items to Google Books. By ignoring the powerhouse that is Google, who are we serving — our users or ourselves?

Miller and Pellen (2005) are resigned to the inevitability of Google, and distinguish between two groups, those librarians who ‘hate or fear‘ Google, and those who ‘love it and embrace it‘ (p 1). I’m not sure it’s quite so black and white as that. I admit to using Google search and some Google tools every day, but that doesn’t blind me to their limitations. As research tools used independently and in isolation of other (more reputable) resources, their inability to assess and evaluate content makes them dangerous. But then, our prized bibliographic databases are beginning to index blogs and other grey literature, which begs the question: in the hands of an inexperienced user, are databases really so much better than Google?

So what next? I don’t support Tara Brabazon’s notion that we should ‘ban’ students from using Google and Wikipedia — anyone who experienced a single sex education knows that banning something only makes it more desirable. Nor am I (obviously) going to advocate that we abandon millennia of knowledge and let the culture of amateurship prevail. That way, danger and the dark ages lie.

Google Books is far from perfect. As this tongue-in-cheek post from TechCrunch notes, the scanning is not always of particularly good quality, and Campus Technology argues that the product is nowhere near ready for general use. However, when there’s a growing tendency for students to only seek fast, easy web-based access to information, surely there is some value in a service that provides online access to books, the original information container? The majority of books go through at least some editorial process, even to the level of peer review. We worry about the inability of inexperienced users to evaluate resources, but sitting around lamenting the rise and rise of Google and Wikipedia isn’t going to help. We need to be proactive, and one of the ways we can do this is to encourage our users to delve into books. And if this happens online, with the assistance of a keyword search, so be it.

* ‘Books are the legacies that a great genius leaves to mankind, which are delivered down from generation to generation as presents to the posterity of those who are yet unborn.
Joseph Addison

Further reading:

Update: I’m so glad this wasn’t a class assignment, because I failed. Here’s the text I referenced:

Miller, W., & Pellen, R. M. (2006). Introduction : libraries and their interrelationships with Google. Libraries and Google. Binghamton, NY, USA: Haworth Information Press.

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