Google and the Librarian: Best Frenemies Forever

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.

Categories: Big Picture, Technology

9 replies

  1. Like you, I think that Google is helpful in so many ways. They make it easier than ever to find information quickly and fairly reliably. Even though that Pew poll showed that 52 percent of American believe that they can get their information elsewhere, 95 percent think that the library is important. I think this disconnect is because people are starting to see a library and librarians as more than ways to get information. They are becoming community centers, especially in more rural or suburban areas.

    Libraries do things that Goggle cannot. They can provide one-on-one help, they provide classes for things such as the Affordable Care Act and tax preparation. They provide a place for people to gather and study or work, a place for people to check out movies, books, magazines, and newspapers. Just the other day I served as a witness to a will signing.

    Librarians are still useful as mediators of information as well. I have frequently conducted reference interviews with patrons at the library where I work and found out that their initial query was not exactly what they wanted, and helped them find more appropriate information, sometimes even using Google and Wikipedia.

    Our role as future librarians is not only as mediators of information, but increasing as community touchpoints. We should be engaged in our communities in way that Google cannot be. We cannot afford to be simply purveyors of information, the sole bastion of knowledge that a library once was. The library’s role is evolving, and we have to evolve with it.


  2. I was thinking about this. However, in an article by Samuel S. Green in the first issue of the American Library Journal in 1876, he states that librarians should not make patron dependent on the librarian. Librarians are teachers. With this in mind, librarians are not encyclopedias. Patrons always had (and have) access to information with or without the librarian’s help. The librarian is there to guide the patron in the direction in order to better answer the patron’s questions. Librarians are relevant, even in the Google age.


  3. I think it *is* important to understand what public libraries and librarians do that Google doesn’t, but I categorically reject this idea (presented here and elsewhere) that libraries should mimic the business world.

    The author writes that “Meanwhile, we’ve dug our own financial graves on the principle that we’re morally superior because we’re non-profit…”

    Sorry, but there is something superior to offering the public a service without a profit-motive, which is one of the ways that public libraries can continue to distinguish themselves in an increasingly for-profit world; we do what we do for the betterment of the community, not to make profits for shareholders. It is extremely unique, and rare, and precious, and the idea that we should shy away from that proud tradition strikes me as folly.


    • I think that downright rejecting the for-profit model is counterproductive. More than mimicking I think that libraries should steal what processes and techniques make some businesses so successful, even more so when I think of making the best of the limited resources we usually have.
      The ethic behind choices might be different, but the result should be the same.


      • I see where you are coming from but I think that the essence of for-profit and not-for-profit organizations are very different. When you say “the ethic behind choices might be different, but the result should be the same,” I just don’t agree.

        The essence of the public library (like all things public) is that it is an independent and noncommercial entity that does not depend on profitability to guide its decision-making. Our job is to satisfy the diverse needs of community members, not attract “business”. Its not about numbers – its about people.


        • Hi Caleb,
          Sorry I’m (really) belated with the comment here, but I wanted to clarify a bit what I meant with that statement. I don’t believe that the profit motive should drive library services, by any means, but I don’t think that libraries, in general, have gone about being non-profits in a very smart way. We have acted as though the mere fact of being a societal good should be enough to earn us all the funding and support we need.

          I know of – heck, I’ve worked for – plenty of nonprofits that are very savvy about their finances and about identifying and going after lucrative streams of funding. This doesn’t tarnish their not-for-profit cred — rather it enables them to continue to hire the best of the best and serve their constituents increasingly well.

          I don’t think libraries need to sacrifice their service mission to be a bit smarter about the way they raise funds, and I absolutely believe we need to become increasingly aware of our (in)ability to compete for the geniuses out there.


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