In the past week I’ve heard three different librarians say something like, “We lost to Google years ago”. We know that this sort of statement isn’t complete hyperbole. When it comes to discovering or verifying quick facts, people turn to search engines faster than they ever turned to an encyclopedia at home or a reference collection at the library. While there are many things librarians can do better than Google, like help people find the needle the information haystack, or teach people how to make wise, informed decisions when researching, when it comes to ready reference, most of the time Google has got us beat.
The big thing Librarians still have over Google, though, is criticism and control. We not only know how to quickly manipulate Google’s search engine (and other companies’ engines) to discover decent results, but we are pretty good at separating the wheat from the chaff. I notice this especially with government documents and government data on the web: people who visit me at the reference desk who are looking for government data have a hard time finding information and then being able to verify its authority. There are no second readers on the web – people have to rely on their own experience and understanding of information organization and information architecture to locate documents, and then be willing to using them with confidence. Librarians, however, can help people locate information sources, draw relationships between items, and determine the value of this knowledge to their own work. For these reasons alone, we’re kind of a big deal and shouldn’t be afraid to say so.
Especially in this so-called digital age, our ability to help people choose information sources makes us essential to information management and research services. For all of our complaints about people’s reliance on the Google search engine and index, we can at least take comfort knowing that our “editorial” function vis-a-vis the Internet is still necessary and valued. What’s a curator but a selector of items of value? I’m not saying that librarians curate the web, but on the whole, we certainly have a broad understanding of the tools and resources needed to help you find what data you’re looking or to take your work to the next level.
But now, Internet, Inc has developed the latest, greatest search engine that apparently should leave us shaking in our boots: Blekko. Blekko is receiving a lot of new-startup-PR this month because it is doing what librarians have done for ages (and what Google doesn’t bother to do) – it separates the good from the downright ugly on the Internet. Although Blekko has indexed over 3 billion webpages, it lists only top results in order to cut down on website “pollution” from content farms and simple dirty spam. I’ll let the New York Times take over from here:
People who search for a topic in one of seven categories that Blekko considers to be polluted with spamlike search results — health, recipes, autos, hotels, song lyrics, personal finance and colleges — automatically see edited results.
And furthermore, their comparative example:
In some cases, Blekko’s top results are different from Google’s and more useful. Search “pregnancy tips,” for instance, and only one of the top 10 results, cdc.gov, is the same on each site. Blekko’s top results showed government sites, a nonprofit group and well-known parenting sites while Google’s included OfficialDatingResource.com.
“Google has a hard time telling whether two articles on the same topic are written by Demand Media, which paid 50 cents for it, or whether a doctor wrote it,” said Tim Connors, founder of PivotNorth Capital and an investor in Blekko. “Humans are pretty good at that.”
Blekko’s founders are basically looking Google in the eye and saying the Internet isn’t going to be a wild west any more, that editorial control (if not authority control, too?) is required to organize all the information available to anyone ready to jack in to the web.
This is verging on librarians’ territory. Should we be concerned? I don’t think so. Should Blekko succeed at helping the entire world discern what is valuable and critical from what is a bottle of plonk on the Internet, then I think we’ve got a problem, but given the fact that information is synthesized into knowledge at the local level, I think we still have something on the these apparent new search engine masters. And I don’t feel like I’m sticking my head in the sand by saying that, either. Sure, the Internet can give us a run for our money at times, but if anything it’s made the work we do all the more important to the people we serve. With so much information available to people since the development of the web, it’s useful to have other people (i.e., us) close at hand to help them determine their particular information needs and help them solve it.
Blekko won’t know, for instance, what titles our local public library holds, and neither it will be certain which electronic databases our local universities subscribe to. And I can pretty much guarantee it won’t have any Canadian socio-economic data (longform or no longform) and very few government documents. This is where the person on the ground – the librarian – can step in and act as an intermediary between our patron and what the Internet has to offer.
Funny. I nearly called the Internet an “Interblob” just now. Because that’s what it is – a big doughy blob of information. But because I’m a librarian, I can help you find what you’re looking for on it – Google or no Google, Blekko or no Blekko.
- Blekko Edits and De-Spams Search Results with Slashtags [Search] (lifehacker.com)
- What Can You Do On Blekko That You Can’t Do On Google? (TCTV) (techcrunch.com)