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.

About Maura Smale

Maura Smale is Chief Librarian and Department Chair, Library, at New York City College of Technology, City University of New York.

5 thoughts on “They Need Us, They Really Need Us

  1. Right on, Maura! Until the bibliographic universe starts contracting rather than expanding at an exponential rate, there will always be a need for reference librarians. Our titles and place of work may change but the need for our services will not.

  2. Thanks for your heartening words. I also love the energy (and perhaps a little frantic dread) in future-thinking, but when the rhetoric starts playing around with “the death of X” theme, my gut reaction is to brush it aside.

    Librarians have always acted as mediators between people and information. Our roles as interpreters, preservers, searchers, producers, and archivists have changed over time, sometimes dramatically, but essentially we always exist and thrive in that intermediate space. As long as that space exists, I think there will always be a need for library (or IL) instruction.

    Secondly, as you point out with Google’s spammers, there will always be people (or bots) that try to game the system and many of those will succeed. Even if we loose our roles as searchers of information, I don’t see that people will ever lose the need for interpreters, especially when it relates to polarizing subjects like politics and ethics. And as experts in information architecture, we do provide a unique, systems-based perspective on critical thinking not always provided by non-librarian instructors.

    If there ever comes a time when the difference between the human mind and the computer is indistinguishable, maybe I will reconsider my statements. But until then, I will always strive to help one side understand the other.

    Thanks again!

  3. Google has limited utility as a gateway to the kind of academic content that supports serious research.
    “Now more than ever.” Known by some as a bumper sticker slogan from Richard Nixon’s presidential campaign, it could also serve as the rallying cry of academic librarians everywhere! Consider that the internet has brought more information to our fingertips than was imaginable just a decade ago, and yet it is still often difficult to be well-informed. There is no doubt that we are in an era of transition, and yet too many students unknowingly engage in a narrow exploration of the digital landscape. Now more than ever librarians are needed to provide guidance to the schools we serve, and implement information literacy programs that will give students lifelong learning skills to find, evaluate and use information effectively.

  4. Michael Larose, with all due respect, the latest generation is far more technologically advanced than any previous generation as a whole. We do not need librarians to help guide students along a path of literacy. We have “real” teachers to guide students along their paths of academics and erudition. Many children learn to use computers by themselves in this modern day and age. We do not need some pedantic librarian telling kids the “proper” way to search for information. In fact, most times when I visit a library, I enter the information of a book that I am looking for into a computer. It seems like a librarian is a job that can easily be supplanted by a computer in the digital age.

  5. Each generation brings its own set of societal circumstances, thus its own needs. Although the types of resources evolve, the research needs remain. There have been several recent studies in which the net generation has been found to be less tech savvy than otherwise assumed. Adding onto that the fact that technology leads to more questions leads to more technology… and so on. Therefore, I would have to agree with Michael, John and Maura… there will always be a role for the librarian in information seeking… the question is, what the definition of this role will be to future generations.

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