On LISNews I ran across a blog post linking to another blog post referring to a discussion at another website about something called Reference Extract, which is apparently going to be another attempt by library folk to create another search engine that gives people results that librarians like. The sidebar of the site says, "Reference Extracts [sic] will be built for maximum credibility by relying on the expertise and credibility judgments of librarians from around the globe." The discussion point was whether librarians had lost the search war. The obvious response is, I didn’t even know they were fighting it. That’s not really a good sign for your side of the war when you’re the only one who knows you’re fighting it. The flies buzzing around the elephant probably think, "Oooh! We’ve got him this time!"
Someone criticized the Reference Extract project for being a useless vanity project for library folk to feel good about themselves (I think I like that person). LISNews extracts the best portions from a response by David Lankes:
"It is a constant drumbeat that we must change and make our libraries relevant. But dammit, we must move beyond bullet points and slogans and translate this drumbeat into real risk, real action, real new thinking…. Why can’t we replace the ‘Read’ posters that portray libraries as places of things with ‘Ask’ posters that show them as places of curiosity? Why do library gaming programs have to be some sort of lost leader to reading when gaming is a literacy unto itself? Who said the catalog has to be the public face of the library on the web? WHY CAN”T LIBRARIES REINVENT SEARCH?"
The first thing that caught my attention was the call to move beyond bullet points and slogans. Fat chance. Lankes and I see the same futile inaction from librarians. The difference is it’s exactly what I expect and I don’t mind a bit.
Then I noticed that "gaming is a literacy unto itself." News to me, but, yeah, I guess, if you stretch the word "literacy" to breaking point. It’s not the kind of literacy that are going to make the little kiddies who need the library grow up to be responsible and productive citizens who’ll be able to use their "literacy" skills to do things like read and write, which I’ve heard are a lot more important than playing videogames for a lot of good jobs, especially if employers start discriminating against World of Warcraft players because they spend all their time gaming and don’t pay enough attention to their work. Regardless, the kind of "literacy" gaming fosters isn’t any kind worth promoting at the public expense.
The main point of the response was about libraries and search, though. Why can’t libraries reinvent search? I should think it was obvious, but maybe it’s worthwhile to point out a few reasons why.
Consider the competition, which for the most part is Google. Google makes a boatload of money. They can afford to pay the best software engineers and programmers in the country and give them a lot of support in their work. Their revenue is based on competitively creating products that people want to use because they work so darn well. They’ve been enormously successful, and within a few years have outstripped all their rivals. Some of their rivals also make a lot of money, and they also hire good engineers and programmers.
And libraries? They hire library school graduates. In case the penny hasn’t dropped, let’s do the comparison in our heads. On the one hand, we have the best engineers and programmers in the country, and on the other hand we have…library school graduates. Unless the ALA can lobby successfully for some anti-competitive labor standards favoring librarians, I don’t see how libraries are going to compete. They’re not businesses. They don’t have cadres of programmers working in the bowels of the library developing neat stuff. If they’ve got someone who can build a decent website and make a wiki they feel like they’ve achieved some sort of technological wonder. If some librarians feel like they’re hot stuff at creating search engines, let them apply to work at Google and see how far they get.
That’s just the quality of the people doing the work. Then there’s the money. Google and Yahoo exist to build search engines and make their money that way. Libraries exist to be all things for all people, and they don’t make any money for anyone, including themselves. Most search projects they do get off the ground are grant-driven, and a lot of them seem to die or scale back once the grant is gone. Thus, libraries can sometimes persuade other people who have made money just to give it to the libraries, but they don’t make any themselves, especially creating "credible" search engines that nobody but librarians cares about.
And that’s yet another point. It seems that nobody but librarians care about so-called credible or authoritative search engines. Thus, these projects are search engines built by librarians for librarians. Librarians don’t use them either, though, because Google works so much better. Who is the audience for these things? Library school students in a reference class who need to write short group essays evaluating them?
Even when they do try to "reinvent search," really all librarians are doing is creating yet another Internet index of web pages destined to be outdated before the index can be updated. This is just a fancier version of those pages of "favorite links" libraries have been posting for the last ten or fifteen years. Creating good search engines is about creating great search algorithms that will lead to the most relevant hits for any given search. Do we really expect libraries to compete with Google in this endeavor?
Let’s return to the original question, are libraries losing the search war. The answer is no, because libraries were never fighting the search war. The history of search hasn’t been a history of libraries competing with commercial enterprises to improve search. The major search engines and indexes that most librarians use weren’t created by librarians. Other people create them and libraries use them. Just like other people create books and magazines andvideogames and the Internet and whatever else libraries provide access to. Libraries have rarely actively created information; instead they acquire, organize, and disseminate what others have done. Even if we consider all the social software the twopointopians get so worked up over. Libraries didn’t invent any of these tools. Creative non-librarians did, and librarians just use them.
Why is this so shocking? Why should anyone get worked up about losing a war we were never fighting in the first place? Librarians have been early adopters and expert users of all sorts of information technology for decades, and somehow this has evolved into a feeling of ownership, as if librarians had a creative stake in these tools when they’ve merely been better at using them than the general populace.
Librarians should just relax, because they’re not going to reinvent anything. They never have. They never will. That’s not what libraries are for, but a lot of librarians like to get all hot and bothered that they can’t compete in a field they never entered in the first place.