Google: Friend or Foe?

Academic librarians and information experts debated that and other questions at a conference session on disruptive technologies.
April 11, 2005

Just how concerned about Google and other new technologies should academic librarians be?

That was the essential question at the core of a Web-based panel Saturday, "Googlelizers, Visualization, Metasearch, and Other Disruptive Search Technologies," sponsored in conjunction with the annual meeting of the Association of College and Research Libraries. The panelists more or less divided themselves into "resisters" and "Googlelizers" (or "evil Googlelizers," as one of the self-described resisters, Steven J. Bell, characterized them, with tongue planted, mostly, in cheek).

"The war is over, and Google won," said Richard Sweeney, university librarian at the New Jersey Institute of Technology and a proud Googlelizer. He and Judy Luther, a consultant on library technology issues, both praised Google for making information more accessible to a much broader range of users. Sweeney compared searching in Google to the kind of video and other gaming that many young people do, where once a user achieves a certain level of success, "you can move on to the next level." 

By offering simple and advanced searching, Luther said, Google makes users, particularly young ones, feel "like they're in control" and encourages them to do searches and get results." Academic librarians, she said, "can build upon that" over time to transform those young people into consumers of what the libraries have to offer. She, too, drew a parallel to gaming, in which players typically try to "get around" those in positions of responsibility and lean heavily on their "strategy coaches."

Librarians need to become coaches, she said, to help users figure out "how they can find the best information."

L. Suzanne BeDell, vice president of higher education publishing for ProQuest Information and Learning, the sort of publishing company that Google's ascent has challenged, agreed with its fans that Google's approaches have "influenced how we think about search engines at Proquest, and that's produced a lot of changes for the better," such as simpler interfaces and the ability to cross-search databases. 

The challenge for librarians in the Google age, she said, is to make sure users eventually are directed "to premium content provided by the library, not diverted from it."

Bell, director of the Paul J. Gutman Library at Philadelphia University, offered probably the most skeptical view about whether the advent of Google's main search engine and technologies such as Google Scholar, have helped or hurt academic libraries and the students and professors they serve. 

He questioned the prevailing wisdom that the interfaces of standard academic databases are too complex, and said that "if you care about helping your users get to the highest quality information, the highest quality results," it's difficult to say that Google is a good model for searching in the academic context.

"It's not about what you find, it's about what you miss," said Bell, who suggested that the audience check out a Web interface that compares the leading search engines and shows what didn't show up on any one of them.

Other Threats

If academic librarians are feeling on the defensive because of Google and its various products, wait until they see what's coming, the panelists warned.

They discussed a range of other "disruptive technologies," some that already exist and others under development, that have the potential to transform how scholars, students and other consumers of information receive it, including:

  • metasearching (which brings multiple databases together into one giant searchable one);
  • visualization (a type of search result that divides information collected through a search into groups that are presented to the user in easily distinguishable visual ways); and 
  • customization and personalization, which incorporate a wide range of delivery methods that allow users to decide exactly what information they need and, in some cases, like with RSS feeds, allow for the information to be "pushed out" to them rather than requiring them to go seek it.

The question for academic libraries, said Bell, is: "How are we going to harness these disruptive technologies, so we can become a sustainable technology ourselves that will be resistant to all these types of disruptive ones?"

The members of the audience seemed uncertain about how easily they and their institutions will be able to adapt to the technological changes. Asked to pick among three choices -- "Google is good for my life and library;" "Google is evil and bad for my life and library!"; and "Still trying to decide between A and B" -- "C" led the way.


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