They Need Us, They Really Need Us
Yesterday morning a friend’s retweet caught my eye. Apparently last week the productivity blog Lifehacker ran a survey in which readers were asked whether Google’s search results seemed increasingly full of spam and less useful. About 10,000 Lifehacker readers took the survey, and the top responses were eye-opening:
- Nearly 34% of those who replied chose: “Absolutely. The spammers have gained a significant foothold.”
- And almost 44% voted: “Kind of/sort of, but it’s still the best way to get at the good stuff.”
Of course this is a huge and open-ended survey question — exactly what kinds of information are users searching for? Looking at the comments (and the general content published by Lifehacker) it’s clear that most of the respondents probably use Google for typical, everyday searches: looking for news, weather, directions and travel, reliable product reviews and recommendations before purchasing, health and medical facts and advice, etc. I’d wager that most of the users who answered the survey weren’t referring to searches for research or scholarly information.
But I found these results especially interesting in light of Brian Sullivan’s satirical piece recently in the Chronicle reporting on the end of the academic library. The second factor he noted that contributed to the death of the academic library? “Library instruction was no longer necessary” because databases had become so easy to use, just like search engines.
(I should note that, while occasionally frustrating, I generally enjoy speculative futuristic scenarios about libraries and librarianship — they’re fun to read, and can be genuinely thought-provoking.)
Leaving aside issues of usability in library databases for the moment (because I think there’s still a long way to go), it doesn’t seem like instruction and reference librarians should strike out in search of new jobs quite yet. If Google and other search engines are increasingly not cutting it for even the basic, everyday searches for most people — usually the easy stuff, right? — how can we expect students to come to college already fluent in finding quality research information on the internet?
I was also struck by one of the Lifehacker commenters who wrote: “Part of the problem could be that people expect Google to read their minds.” We see students struggle with choosing and using appropriate search terms at the reference desk and in our classes, and we know how different the results list can be. What goes in determines what comes out — last semester I helped a student who was surprised to see that when she included the words “research paper” along with her topic in a Google search, her search results were dominated by websites selling term papers (which was, I hope, not what she was looking for).
So while I do hope that search engines and library databases continue to become easier to use and to give us better quality, more relevant results (and that seems likely to happen), I’m not at all ready to call it quits. I think we’ve still got a long way to go before our students won’t need library instruction.