Micah Vandegrift on the librarians of the future

Micah Vandegrift of HackLibSchool has written great post on the future of libraries (or on the librarian of the future, anyway you cut it) on his own blog; it neatly parallels some of the things I’ve been ranting about on blogs and on Twitter this past week.   He, too, sees the need for librarians to increase their technical knowledge and abilities, and to increase these competencies fast:

My advice to LIS students? Get digital skills, whether you want to or not. To those who want to work in academic libraries? Get deep knowledge of digital trends, including CompSci, Data science, information architecture, digital humanities, digital archiving practices, CMS’s and yes even programming . . . To current academic librarians, maybe its time to use some of your free continuing education credits and update your skill set to remain in the know.

Kudos to Vandegrift for calling it as he sees it.  It’s high time that we stop acting like we’re the kings of the library technology castle unless we actually have the ability and are willing to defend these statements.  We need to not only walk the walk but also talk the talk when it comes to information technology as it affects our workplaces, other people’s lives and their research, and our culture in general.  Librarians aren’t so removed from this sphere that we can’t accomplish this, but we have some catching up to do in order to make it happen.

On a sidenote, I’d like to note that Micah makes this call to arms without have to deal with any of the off-base assumptions made by Jeff Trzeciak (recipient of the 2011 Jeff Trzeciak Award for Just Not Getting It) in the run-up to and during #fulmac11.  I believe this IT question presumes that credentialed librarians are the experts on librarianship and should be the people who organize and run our information centres and libraries.  What matters here is the amount of IT knowledge we’re bringing to the profession when we enter it, and also what we’re doing to enrich ourselves and our organizations once we’re there.  The letters MLIS (or MLS, etc) will remain compulsory;  Let’s just find a way to emphasize the IT within the degree.



Riffing on Seth Godin: Librarians as Data Hounds

Image representing Seth Godin as depicted in C...
Apparently Seth Godin has ideas about libraries

Seth Godin wrote a great post today – I’m sure you’ve read it by now – on the “The Future of the Library.” It’s a future with librarians who serve as catalysts of digital information access and as collaborators with their patrons. Given the state of the economy and the fact that libraries have always used the latest technologies to collect, store, and diffuse information, the “library of the future” is always a favourite blog topic, even outside of librarianship.  But when some one who works in spheres well beyond what we do, some one like Seth Godin, waxes poetic on our profession, we stand up and take notice.

And take notice we did.  Some of the earliest commenters include:

  • Buffy Hamilton, who draws connections to Lankes’ Atlas of New Librarianship, as well as to the unfortunate situation that Los Angeles teacher-librarians find themselves in this month
  • Bobbi Newman, who lays vendor and wikipedia economics out on the line and shows why it’s the libraries and librarians who are pulling more than their weight when it comes to e-resources; Newman also reminds Godin in no uncertain terms that the librarian’s role as educator should never be underestimated (this is where she always excels)
  • Gwyneth Marshman, who considers how information access is just as important to academic and special libraries as the printed word is to public libraries

I held back on my two cents because I had too many demands on my Monday (like a third cup of coffee to make it through the afternoon), but that doesn’t mean that I don’t have an opinion.  When it comes down to it, I agree with Seth.  Mind you, Godin isn’t saying anything new or profound either about or to librarians.  Seth is saying all the things that many of have said before, that:

[a] librarian is a data hound, a guide, a sherpa and a teacher. The librarian is the interface between reams of data and the untrained but motivated user.

Or, when discussing the pedagogical aspect of our work, that any good librarian will take:

responsibility/blame for any kid who manages to graduate from school without being a first-rate data shark.

Seth likes his animal imagery, for sure:  librarians are data hounds who help our youngsters grow into being data sharks.  I like these metaphors, too, and like them a lot.  What’s there not to like in these statements?  Seth Godin is speaking about the potential and the responsibility that our profession has, and he’s speaking to a general audience.  Godin is speaking to the world and to librarians when he says he foresees a library as a place full of digital and print containers of information, managed by librarians who know where all the information is stored, how to get to it, and how it all fits together.  This is a future where librarians don’t work in dusty offices, don’t work with card catalogues, and don’t shush people.

But wait a second.  Seth has got some great ideas, but I think the future Seth wants is very much here already.  Librarians are at the cutting edge of tech, bringing people and their data and information together.  We help people create knowledge.  Hell, we can make the trains run on time.

Or, that is, a lot of the time, we can help others make the trains run on time.  And here’s my real issue, which doesn’t haven so much to do with Seth as it has to do with ourselves.  I’m glad to see that Seth and I are on the same page and that we both think that librarians need to be tech mavens and data gurus.  But the problem is that a lot of us aren’t. A lot of us are focused squarely on the educational side of the profession.  There is nothing wrong with that.  We are teachers, after all, and we have a crucial role to play in research methods, in critical thinking, and in lifelong learning.  I couldn’t be more serious when I say that since I work in information literacy and know first-hand that some one has got to show these students how to create a research plan, how to mock up a topic and a subject, how to open a database and how to create a hypothesis.  I am dead-serious about this because I’ve met enough students in my short time as a librarian to know that these skills are not taught adequately in all classrooms (this is not the fault of teachers, by the way: it’s symptomatic of poorly funded educational systems at all levels, in my mind).  Indeed, many of us must be focused on our pedagogical role because it is an important and vital part of our professional obligations.  But when so many of us are working in the front of the house on the educational side of things, who is it that’s making sure the gears don’t get gummed up and slow down the system?  Who really is working on information storage, search, retrieval, and organization?

I’m not being willfully ignorant  here.  I know full well that there are plenty of librarians who still work in Tech Services, in Bibliographic Control, and in Systems, and I value their work.  The thing is that I value their so much that I think it’s a subfield of our profession that more of us should be acquainted with.  In my place of work, a mid-sized university with some 600 academic databases from a bevy of vendors, there are very few librarians who know how they all fit together, and there are few others actively working in data collection and storage into local repositories. This is our collective loss and it it’s a disservice to our patrons and to our institutions.  Collectively, we should know more about our systems and our data collection, but we don’t.

Know kung fu: rule The Matrix by understanding its architecture

Dear fellow librarians: don’t take this as a criticism of our work.  Instead, take it as a call to arms.  The world has gone digital, and we were there to guide it through its growing pains.  MARC long ago taught us a lot about systems, authorities, and control, and this is an area we still have strong expertise in.  So, let’s not sit by the wayside as the world steams ahead of us on account of the knowledge we developed and then shared in information systems and retrieval.  It has become more and more apparent that the Internet really does need a strong cadre of “editors” and “curators” who truly understand how to select, store, and retrieve the best information out there;  there is no single search bar to rule them all, but there are librarians who can help others find and then use the information they’re looking for.  Seth Godin is right on the money in his post only because he’s seen the writing on the wall and is parroting what we know already: that the world’s gone digital and it needs some help figuring out what do with all this data.  Let’s use our skills in information literacy, yes, but let’s also use our skills in information organization to fine-tune the systems already.  We can’t be the best teachers of information retrieval, of information literacy and of research skills unless we understand the systems which house the information in the first place.


Ranting about patting ourselves on the back

I’m not sure how to write up this post since I’m bothered by two separate, but related things, so bear with me.

The Chronicle published a piece this week about what academic librarians value most about their work, and it’s no surprise (for me) to learn that it is instruction and information literacy.  Titled “Librarians Put Increasing Value on Their Role in Support of Student Learning, the article reports on the Ithaka S+R Library Survey 2010: Insights from U.S. Library Directors, and it tells us that we’re a happy bunch, that we value our role in education and academic support services, and that we’re always ready to give it the old college try.   (Yes, I’m being slightly facetious.)

However, The article also reports on the difference in opinion between librarians and teaching faculty on how we perceive our work in teaching and learning.  Ithaka compared the ways that library directors valued teaching and learning in the 2010 survey to the opinions of teaching faculty on the same subject in its 2009 Faculty Survey, and the difference in opinion is not pretty:

Ninety-seven percent of library directors said it was important that their library help facilitate teaching [in the 2010 survey] . . .  Just under 60 percent of faculty members felt strongly about libraries’ pedagogical involvement [in the 2009 survey].

Librarians understand this already.  We spend a lot of time strategizing how to convince teaching faculty to let us enter the classroom and show our stuff to the student body.  We know things, yes we do, but not everyone knows that.

What bothers me, though, is the way that this news article has spread on Twitter.   Maybe I’ve overlooked something – and please correct me if I am – but I’ve seen a lot of people retweet this news piece today by retweeting the Chronicle’s own headline on the news story, which misses the point entirely:

I want to forgive everyone who retweeted the article without reading it since it’s something I’ve done in the past, too.  After all, it’s the nature of Twitter and information exchange to value messages given to us by people we know: we take it on faith that the article must be good if some one we know retweeted it. But then I surfed to Bit.ly to look closer at who tweeted the page and how.  You can do the same:


(Yes, it’s so important to this post that I had to center the text and change its font size.)

Not only have a lot of people who re-tweeted the post, but we are also collectively re-tweeting it as if it is focused on the the good things in our field – that we value information literacy. Of course we value information literacy.  But The Chronicle’s article is actually troubling because it explains plainly that many of our peers in academia don’t understand the value our work in teaching and learning.  And it’s even more troubling that we are re-tweeting the article as if it shines a glowing light on our work in the academy when many people don’t know what we do, how we do it, and why.

Like I said at the beginning of this post, I’m not sure how to write up my thoughts right now.  On the one hand, I want to comment on the fact that we value our work but that not everyone else does.   But on the other hand, I’m compelled to talk about way we’re re-tweeting this article as if it says good things about our work.  I admit it – I could be quibbling since The Chronicle did report on some good things, after all.  But I still think we should spend more of our energy thinking about ways to shrink that 37% difference of opinion on the librarian’s role in teaching and learning as opposed to giving ourselves a pat on the back and calling it a day.  This isn’t about talking about ways to just get in to the classroom.  It’s about convincing the other 40% of teaching faculty (and that 3% of library directors) that we actually do make a difference.

These librarians are smiling because they're certain that everyone knows what a great role they play in teaching and learning on campus. (Photo Source: Christchurch City Libraries)

A Paper.li Newspaper for Academic Librarians

You know it had to happen sooner or later, and here it is – my first foray into the paper.li editing realm.  I’ve created a paper.li newspaper called The Academic Librarian Review.  Check it out now.

The premise is simple.  Paper.li will scan Twitter for tweets that have links of interest to academic librarians.  I developed this by creating the following Twitter search string:

library OR libraries OR librarians academic OR college OR university OR universities OR post-secondary OR PSE -high -school -elementary -kids -children -teacher -public -ousted -4sq.com


The search string is simpler that it looks.  Paper.li will first consider only tweets that have these words in them:

  • library OR libraries OR librarians

It will then limit this query by holding onto tweets that contain any of the following terms:

  • academic OR college OR universities OR post-secondary OR PSE

And finally, it will definitely throw away all tweets that have any of the following words:

  • high OR school OR elementaty OR kids OR children OR public OR teacher OR public OR outsted OR 4sq.com


This hopefully filter tweets referring to high school, to public libraries, and to foursquare notices (because libraries are popular Foursquare locations).  Apologies if you’re offended that I’m discriminating against school librarians and public librarians.  I’m focusing this paper.li product on academic librarians since that’s my profession at the given moment.  Later this weekend, I may create a feed for public librarians, though, since I’m passionate about the social justice and community-building work that goes on in these important institutions.


At any rate, be sure to check out The Academic Librarian Review on paper.li.  Maybe this venture will work, maybe it will be a bust.  We’ll know by next week, I’m sure.



iPads in libraries: waiting on better browser interfaces

Edit: Jan 31/2011 – Check out the link that Val Forrestal provides to her blog in the first reply to this post.  Last summer, she and a colleague filmed their attempt to read e-books on an ipad by way of different vendors..  It’s worth checking out.   -michael.

Regular readers to this blog will know I’m a big fan of the iPad as an instructional tool and expect it to become a common piece of technology on our campuses in a few years.  As more competitors enter the market, as more and more apps as built, and once Apple starts offering educational discounts on the iPad(as they did with the original iPod Touch when it purchased with a MacBook or an iMac), tablets of all sizes will become a ubiquitous learning tool.

That’s not to say that the iPad is Steve Jobs‘ gift to education; tablets are not a perfect learning tool by any means. An iPad is a great reading device, and it’s a great social and communicative device, but it’s not great at synthesis: we’ll still have to turn to a technology with a traditional keyboard to write our papers.  But that shouldn’t hinder the tablet’s growth. After all, the book is an incredible reading device but it’s not a great writing tool. But it’s still made it this far.

What will hinder the growth of iPads on campuses, though, are our e-book platforms.  It goes without saying that e-books have altered the publishing industry, in both consumer and scholarly circles.  I know my colleagues at our health sciences library, for instance, love the speed in which medical e-books are being published and revised – and they’re looking forward to seeing more of these full-color books in the hands of their medical students by way of the tablet.  But if ever there was a roadblock to this growth of e-books and tablets, it’s got to be the vendors’ browser-based e-book interface.  While very few people actually prefer to read an e-book front to back with their 21″ flatscreen monitor, even fewer people want to read the same e-book on a 9″ tablet through the same browser interface that was designed for nearly two feet of high-definition viewing.  The shoddy form factor ruins the reading experience.

I’ve taken some screen captures from two of our heavily used e-book platforms at my place of work.  The first is MyiLibrary, which is awful on an iPad.  The second is the SpringerLink interface, which is based on PDF downloads, so it offers a more pleasant experience:

MyiLibrary's Table of Contents for "Adams vs. Jefferson: The Tumultuous Election of 1800". A clickable TOC. So far, So good
Looking at Chapter 4 of "Adams vs. Jefferson". TOC and Search functions to the left, which are useful, but the page sits in a very small window on the iPad
Pushed back the TOC on the left, but it remains difficult to scroll and zoom the e-book's page on a tablet

These three images show how annoying it is to read a MyiLibrary book on an iPad.  Although a reader may appreciate the table of contents on the left, the contents of the book (i.e. that which really matters to the reader) are hard to flip through because of the lost real estate on the screen.  Furthermore, pages must be turned by using very small arrow icons at the bottom of the page, and the full-screen mode (seen in the third image) takes up only 2/3s of the screen at best.  This browser interface may protect MyiLibrary’s content, but it does so at the reader’s expense.

Now, compare the last three images to what we find through SpringerLink:

Considering a text housed on SpringerLink. Chapters are offered as full-text PDF downloads. Springer clearly treats this book as a journal with separate articles.
The first page in the SpringerLink interface. Users can browse the text with the horizontal bar before zooming in on a page below.
Reading SpringerLink PDFs on an iPad is a beautiful thing since full-text PDFs can be downloaded through the browser.

You can see by my comments that I prefer the SpringerLink interface.  There are, of course, other scholarly e-book platforms other than SpringerLink.  And of course, SpringerLink’s reading experience isn’t perfect, either (e.g., opening the text was difficult on an iPad, but after that it was smooth sailing).    However, my point in taking these screen captures was not to railroad one vendor in favor of another.  Rather, it was to highlight something that is vital to tablet use on campus: vendor platforms that make reading accessible with this technology.  Librarians, scholars, and students are going to be stuck with poor interfaces until the vendors find a way to transfer their intellectual property through a browser with ease.   Maybe each vendor will develop an app that works with a library’s proxy to circumvent this issue, but then the libraries have got to deal with unhappy patrons who themselves must deal with a half-dozen programs to open as opposed to their one Safari or browser window.

It’s times like this that I wish instructional librarians truly worked closer with systems librarians as well as with vendors.  The iPad is an opportunity for all stakeholders on campus, but we’re going to be spinning our wheels for some time until we can find some common ground regarding content delivery on the device.

PodCamp Halifax 2011 slides: Leveraging YouTube

This post is for the benefit of all the Halifax Podcamp 2011 attendees as well as for the rest of the Interweb – the slides from my presentation, Leveraging YouTube: informing and educating with screencasts.

Click here for the link to the actual Slideshare page.  And click here for the link to the Scribd page, which offers the same content on a different platform.

On Monday or Tuesday, I’ll write up a few notes from the presentation.  There were a number of things I didn’t have the chance to hit on, including measuring use (and not letting the numbers get to you) as well as the strong user communities for the different types of software.  If there is one piece of advice to hand out though, it is to keep it simple, always.  Be brief, be on message, and state only one message at a time in all of your screencasts.  Your users will often be looking for information to solve a problem now, so give them what they’re looking for.

Screencasting software links:

Here are links to the Dal Libraries tutorials:

  • Our index – over 100 online learning objects.  Note: some are five or six years old now and show their age
  • Vimeo – I’ve uploaded a “best of” collection to Vimeo.

Finally, here are two of my older posts on screencasting, which have proved to be quite popular:



Post Script:  In case you’re looking for the actual Podcamp Halifax website, you can click here for:

Muppet News Flash: Digital Libraries cost a lot of money (but don’t tell the general public)

A recent piece in the New York Times is reminding me why people don’t understand the enormous costs (let alone the time and effort) associated with digitizing a world’s culture.  Natasha Singer’s January 8 article does a great job at helping the public imagine the possibility of a Great American Digital Library, and she even quotes Benjamin Franklin to lend her argument a certain value that is created when ideas are linked to the nation’s forefathers.  What the news piece is real light on, however, are financial figures.  Check it out and see.

The article neatly summarizes the digitization efforts of certain national governments, compares them to the Library of Congress’s American Memory project and then to the Google Books project.  We learn that the LoC project has no formal connections to any public library projects and that several leading figures and organizations would like to collaborate on one giant digitization venture.  Wouldn’t it be great if we could coordinate our efforts, standardize systems and processes, and make it accessible to archivists, researchers, and to the public?  Yes Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.

My problem lies with the way the article pays short shrift to the costs of such an effort. After telling us that Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society would like to develop a “digital public library of America,” Singer tells her readers that:

Of course, practical matters — like cost, copyright issues and technology — would need to be resolved first.

“The crucial question in many ways is, ‘How do you find a common technical infrastructure that yields interoperability for the scholar, the casual inquirer or the K-12 student?’” Dr. Billington says.

The New York Times does precious little in this article to break down the costs associated with a digitization project, let alone one of the magnitude to which it alludes.  What we’ve got listed are “copyright issues” and “technology”, which don’t touch the human capital required to develop and then maintain this digital archive.  And when Singer says technology, I don’t know if she means hardware, software, maintenance, preservation, or all of these things together.  And the piece says nothing of the physical plant required to house these servers, because even computers must be stored somewhere.  A digital library on any scale is expensive, but this article doesn’t explain why.

Now consider this second quotation, which considers the value of the Google Books project and then notes that in the future, copyright costs may have to be settled by universities, research facilities, and other PSEs:

People can read out-of-print items at no cost on Google Books, if those works are no longer subject to copyright protection. But if a judge approves a settlement between Google and copyright holders, subscription fees to access scans of out-of-print books still covered by copyright will have to be paid by universities and other institutions.

An American digital public library would serve as a nonprofit institutional alternative to Google Books, Professor Darnton says.

Now we have an example that raises the spectre of “subscription fees” without explaining the burden these fees are to universities.  I have no doubt that when most people read “subscription fees . . . will have to be paid by universities”, they don’t have a sense of the business models and financing at play; for a lot of people, what will really matter is that the buck stops somewhere but thankfully not with them.  As librarians, we know that our electronic resources, as valuable and cost-effective as they are, eat up a large part of our (largely taxpayer-funded) budgets.  These “subscription fees” are not at all like the fees people pay for cable tv or internet connection at home.  PSEs and their libraries pay through the nose to large, for-profit organizations for electronic access to materials that are often funded by the PSEs themselves.  And even in the case of non-profit organizations like JSTOR, the fees remain costly.  So a “non-profit institutional alternative” that seeks to facilitate digitization and access to a nation’s cultural heritage at reasonable rates could still leave a collections librarian bruised.

Digital Preservation is a labor of love: this machine cost nothing to Penn State and this man is happy to volunteer his time and expertise.

We need to get real when we talk about digitization projects to the public, especially when we talk about huge mega-projects like a mass digitization of American cultural history.  Articles like this New York Times piece do nothing to explain the real costs involved in digitization, collections, and electronic access.  And cost is where it counts.  Too often at the reference desk do I find myself explaining to students that material found on Internet is not free and that the dollars they pay for access on their smartphones or at home covers the cost of transmission but not for “content.”   We need to start educating people so they understand that a monthly data plan or Internet bill pays only for the pipes through which content is downloaded to their devices and not for the actual development and maintenance of the content they are retrieving, let alone the infrastructure (human and physical) required to maintain it.

I apologize if I sound like a cranky curmudgeon here.  Like most librarians, I fully believe that information wants to be free.  But that’s only a desire.  Information may want to be free, but right now it isn’t.  And it’s up to people like us to explain to the world the real costs associated in our information landscape.


Come to PodCamp Halifax 2011!

Do you want to know what you’re going to be doing on January 23, 2011?  It’s quite simple, really.  You’re going to attend Podcamp Halifax 2011.  And you’re going to have a blast.

Why are you going to have a blast?  It’s quite simple, really.  When you come to Podcamp, you’ll find like-minded social media fans, professionals, and purveyors, and they’re going to be from all walks of life.  This means it’s going to be as easy as pie to talk up one of your favourite subjects and find some different perspectives and new ideas.  And you’ll likely meet some new friends along the way.

What sort of sessions should you attend at PodCamp 2011?  It’s up to you, really.  You could sit in on a session on the ROI of social media or you could take part on a talk augmented reality as the new social network.  Or, even more fun, you could come to my session, called Making movies makes them S-M-R-T: Screencasting, education (and PR?). In this session I’m going to show how screencasting at Dalhousie Libraries has evolved from static online lectures to videos that introduce real-life librarians to users and then nurture relationships that will last through their time at university.

So come to Podcamp!  Sit in on some sessions, or give one of your own!  Space is still available, and it’s all free, thanks to some great local sponsors.

Screencasting in libraries: build a relationship and not a movie

This past month, my work producing and managing online learning materials collided head-on with the launch of our university’s new website. The Library’s website (which is the school’s largest site by page number and by usage, so they tell me) improved top to bottom: our home page now features a single-search bar that gives our users quick access to WorldCat, our databases, our course reserves, our traditional catalogue, and more. We encountered some very big hiccups, as any big web change will, but I think that most students will benefit from it.

One of my major tasks during the launch has been to update our tutorials. This has been a very slow process since there is only one of me to face off against over 100 tutorials (let alone dealing with my other duties in the normal work week). I wouldn’t say that I’m disappointed with my pace since I’m moving as fast as one can, but I am frustrated that more couldn’t be done in the short time we have. Instead of updating all the tutorials in one fell swoop, I have to prioritize which objects demand the most attention immediately while leaving others behind for later. I refer this work to my colleagues as triage: it’s messy, it doesn’t look good, and our emergencies and our fatalities are in full view of anyone passing by.

If one good thing has come out of this, though, it has been the development of new tutorials which showcase everything the new site can do. Some of the tutorials have been hit-and-miss, while others have been very successful in classrooms and in the general public. The new tutorials feel more like The Web in 2010, and they definitely put the old tutorials in their place – back in 2005 or so. Check out this collection as an example:

1. Dalhousie Libraries’ “Welcome to the Library” tutorial. It’s informative, but its colours are dark, and its message is very formal:

2. The new “Getting your Research Started with the Dal Libraries Website” tutorial (Oct 2010). This tutorial is fairly long at 3 1/2 minutes in length. However, it is instructional by design and is meant to be shown in a classroom setting, to be followed up by real-life surfing and examples offered by a real-life librarian:

3. The most recent tutorial, “Finding Databases with the Single Search Bar”. This tutorial is under 2 minutes in length and features a face (me!) so that the voice doesn’t become a ghost in the machine. Its tone is intentionally conversational:

The third tutorial is my favorite. This video achieves something we have been talking about quite a bit at Dal Libraries as of late – bringing the actual librarian into the tutorial. We have a large number of tutorials that do a great job encapsulating their message – they often have superb production value and credit must be offered to my predecessors. However, as good a job these tutorials do at capturing the lesson at hand, we’re not certain if the student hangs around from start to end to take in all that’s offered. And if they’re not sticking around, then there’s no point in keeping the tutorials on the Interweb. So right now we’re shortening the message’s length and we’re making the librarian a real living person and not just a voice speaking from the computer. Our argument is that if people will turn to our videos to fill an immediate information need, then we have an obligation to give them exactly what they’re looking for. And if the information need remains unmet at the end of the tutorial, then we must show that there truly are real, living people out there (through our virtual reference service or in-person) who can help them.

Does the third tutorial convey all of what I’m hoping it does? Likely not. But all the same, I’m pretty sure it does a better job than the other two tutorials at showing the user that librarians can be of service to them. And I think this is something other libraries should be doing, too. If, at the end of the day, I can create a short video that helps nurture a relationship between a librarian and a library user, then I’ll come away satisfied.

Some notes:

  1. All three videos were developed with different versions of Camtasia screen-capturing software
  2. We believe the jury is still out on the effectiveness of tutorials in 2010. Our stats show usage, but I’m constantly suspicious of Google Analytics (this is the topic of a future post). Neither do we have consensus regarding our focus groups and usability tests
  3. There is no significance to No. 32

Google v. Blekko v. The Librarian. (The librarian wins.)

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.

Click through for a great example on why Google is *not* a good search engine.


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: BlekkoBlekko 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 logo - featuring a real live person (a librarian, no doubt)

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.

Librarians - We are electronic performers (apologies to Air)

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.