Google and Librarians: why it shouldn't be us and them
Clare is a Masters student at London Met university who won a UKSG competition to present her views on information discovery in the Google generation. I am torn between wishing that I'd had an opportunity like this when I was a student, and thinking how petrifying it must be to present to an audience of professionals eager to hear your views. Clare tells us she's nervous but proceeds to speak confidently and knowledgeably on a subject that while familiar to us all, still holds surprises.
Us and them
Clare already works part time at Oxford University libraries as an electronic journals assistant. Interestingly, she sees the "us and them" of the information world as librarians vs Google (not, as some of the other UKSG delegates might see it, as librarians vs publishers). Between her work and her thesis, Clare spends a lot of time looking for information. "I've been online for more than half of my life, and search engines were already prevalent by the time I started my academic career - I've never had to find information without them." She quotes a friend: "Google is an extension of my memory - I don't have to keep facts in my head."
There is a new balance in education as we keep up with emerging technologies. Google has 63% share of the search engine market (13.5bn searches in the US in Jan 09); OCLC research shows that 89% of college students start searches on search engines and Clare confirms it's her first port of call for all her information needs from academic to social. It's a known known. Perhaps less known is that the same research shows only 1% of users starting their search in an online database.
The Google generation
The Google generation is not defined by an age group but by a demographic - "always connected"; multi-tasking; computer literate. Clare says we might also see this group as "impatient, gullible and lazy" - taking the first result they find in a search engine and giving librarians sleepless nights. As we know, the main problems with using search engines as our point of entry to research are:
Material not indexed
* deep web
* access controlled
* no static URL)
Despite this, Google has value - it highlights "informal literature" - the non-traditional materials that other library resources don't surface so effectively, if at all. Through Google Scholar you can filter your search to authoritative content, and the Library Links program enables libraries to direct users to licensed content. And because of Google's power and influence, they drive exposure and sensible structuring of content (e.g. Harvard has redesigned its website to expose its digital collections more effectively; National Libraries of Australia have created stable URLs and metadata for individual items in their image collection). There is a sense that we overestimate what you can't find, and underestimate the value of what you can find.
Quality of material online
"Democratic" (user-generated) publishing - famously exemplified by Wikipedia - concerns librarians and publishers, the gatekeepers of authoritative content. But Wikipedia's advantage is its breadth - over 2.7 million entries in comparison to Oxford Reference Online's 1.3 million (yes, there could be an apples and oranges issue here). "We have to assume that we can't control the web or impose our authority on it any kind of comprehensive way", so how do we manage our response to what we find? With "a pinch of salt"; the widespread news coverage of Wikipedia's flaws, and our own knowledge of how simply we can publish what we want, helps us understand that not everything we find can be trusted. Librarians spend a lot of time already training users about the quirks of different online resources; why not include Google and Wikipedia (etc) in that training.
Clare recalls a lecturer harking back to the glory days where "users were not allowed near the computers and had to use a librarian to find information", but "librarians are no longer required in that role" - they feel displaced; is their reticence about broad search resources based on frustration? There is a context in which "one-box" search engines are in fact the best way to find something. But still users have need of more complex search interfaces and despite their fondness for simplicity they do recognise the value of more sophisticated search.
"Young people today need to be educated to use these tools properly, just as we had to be taught to use a library and book properly in the past". We shouldn't assume there is one Google generation with one set of characteristics - users are still a complex group with varying needs. It can only be helpful for us to acknowledge the place of Google in our users' lives and to help grow their understanding of this tool in the context of the other tools we offer.
(see next post for question and answer session revealing more of Clare's online behaviour)
Coda: Clare's presentation was excellent - not only interesting and well-informed in terms of the material covered but ably and compellingly presented. The feedback about this session has already been overwhelmingly positive and we'll definitely be thinking about how to follow up with more user input at next year's conference.