Tuesday, December 21, 2004

Getting all Google-eyed

Well, it's been an interesting couple of weeks to be a librarian, that's for sure. First, the obvious: CNN notes how today's students avoid using print sources in their essays and assignments. What a shock. We librarians have known this for quite some time. When I was working at an academic library, the "Google mentality" was evident when students would search the databases. If they were writing an essay on "feminist perspectives of Shakespeare's plays" you can bet they would type "feminist perspectives of shakesperes plays" into the database. To be fair, it would be nice if all the database publishers would adopt a standard search interface, but I'll save that digression for a future post.

Anyway, the average student's lack of familiarity with books is quite clear to me. At the library, we get the desparate students who've been told they "need a book" and ask where the books on X are. "X" is usually some broad topic that they know nothing about, thus they have no clue how to narrow it down. Say, "marijuana." "Where are the books on marijuana?" they'll ask. And we'll say, "what about marijuana? The medical effects, the physiological effects, the sociological effects, the legalities of it, how to grow it, what?" Because, if you'll indulge me a moment, the intricacies of the Dewey Decimal system spread these things around. Marijuana as a drug will be in the 610s, while the social effects will be in the 300s or 330s. Growing? Probably 630s or 640s (641 is cookbooks--look for your hash brownie recipes there). Legal aspects? The 340s. I don't remember the Library of Congress system (used in most academic libraries in North America) but it would be just as messy.

But these students (who, of course, have left this to the last minute and need their book tonight), having done no preliminary research, have no clue where to begin and thus say "give me everything!"--or rather, what's left after their classmates have stripped our shelves. Hey, I wrote essays the night before they were due all through high school and undergrad (I wrote my 25-page paper on the Second World War planning of the invasion of Italy in 2 sleepless days). But unlike other procrastinators, I did my research weeks in advance. I'd go to the library one afternoon, find and grab about two dozen books on the subject, and pile them in a corner at home somewhere. A day or two before, I skimmed them, found 4 or 5 that were useful, and threw together an essay from that. Of course, most students with a topic like "compare and contrast these two plays" will try and find a book that compares and contrasts the two plays. If the book doesn't exist, they'll complain vocally, not understanding the purpose of research and the assignment is to compare and contrast the two plays, not regurgitate someone else's comparison of the two plays.

Well, tomorrow's students are more likely to never have to set foot in a library again, thanks to Google and its initiative to digitize and index the complete collections of five university libraries.

Several opinions have been voiced on this development--is it good, is it bad, etc. Scott Rosenberg warns us that though Google is crewed by some extremely cool and innovative grad-student types now, it is a publicly-traded company now. Larry Page and Sergey Brin are two cool dudes who've given us this incredibly powerful search tool, while managing to not be sucked into the downward-spiral-life of corporate shills. But that might not be the case tomorrow. Right now, Google intends to offer this archive of knowledge for free. Will that be the case tomorrow?

Andrew Leonard at Salon.com (you need to be a subscriber or watch ads) talks about the possibility of Information Overload:

But where will it end? Certainly not with the inclusion of every book in the world that already exists. On the Internet, there will also be every critique of every book, every alternative history, every conspiracy theory, and all the real facts and fake facts to back every story up. You think we suffer from information overload now? Just wait until the sum total of all human knowledge is one click away. We are doomed! In a good way!
He begins this essay by referring to Jorges Luis Borges's short story, "The Library of Babel," an amusing read. Now, how do I feel about all this? Well, Rosenberg makes some good points--I would like to see this repository of knowledge owned by the public as well, but in today's economic and political climate, it will never fly. I don't fear too much for the future of my profession, because one thing I've learned as a librarian is you can make a fancier search tool, but someone has to learn how to use it. Until they make a search interface that reads minds and works instantly, most people will need to turn to their information specialists.

Plus, we're a long ways away from getting all information into a digital format. Read what happened to Mark LeVine when he mentioned a historical event that didn't exist on Google (in English, anyway). LeVine has also written on the dangers of using Google as a historical record. So the Ultimate Digital Repository of All Human Knowledge is not upon us just yet. I mark every milestone on the journey with enthusiasm, however. I remember when Pages from the Past, a searchable digital archive of every issue of the Toronto Star newspaper since 1894, was released. Created by scanning the old microfilm reels of The Star (which you had to view on one of these babies), Micromedia-Proquest ensured us of a future where we wouldn't have to look at microfilm and microfiche again. And as someone who spent 5 days straight reading the Collected Minutes of the Meetings of the Combined Chiefs of Staff from World War II, I was extremely grateful.

UPDATE (12-22-o4): I've just been informed that Blogger, the system through which I can post these thoughts to the web, is owned by Google. And I for one welcome our search-engine overlords...