Tag Archives: Google

Convenience and its Discontents: Teaching Web-Scale Discovery in the Context of Google

ACRLog welcomes a guest post from Pete Coco, formerly of Grand Valley State University, now Humanities Liaison at Wheaton College in Norton, MA.

With the continued improvements being made to web-scale discovery tools like Proquest’s Summon and EBSCO’s Discovery Service, access to library resources is reaching a singularity of sorts: frictionless searching. Providing a unified interface through which patrons can access nearly all of your library’s collection has an obvious appeal on all sides. Users get the googley familiarity and convenience of a singular, wide-ranging search box and, according to a recent case study done at Grand Valley State University, the reduced friction patrons face when using library resources correlates to an increase — potentially dramatic — in the frequency with which they access them. While these tools will continue to be tweaked and refined, it’s difficult to imagine an easier process for getting students to scholarly sources.

That’s the good news, and the story you’re likely getting from your sales rep. And while none of it is untrue, in my role as a teaching librarian I’ve seen more undergraduate students struggle to get what they need from web-scale discovery than I’ve seen benefit from its obvious conveniences. These students often know intuitively how to get to results from Summon’s search box; often they figure out on their own how to get to the item itself if it is available in full-text. In the library’s statistics, these might be counted fairly as successful searches. But when I ask the student whether the article at hand is what they wanted, I get one response far more frequently than all others: “Not… exactly.”

Web-scale discovery is doing about as much for these students as we could reasonably expect, and, in doing so, offers teaching librarians a challenge and an opportunity. Both are at root about our thinking, and they stem from the same fact: these tools offer an unprecedented convenience. For all the familiarity it allows students, our decision to make library tools more similar to commercial web search can reinforce the idea — primarily amongst students, but also, potentially, amongst administrators making personnel and workload decisions — that information literacy instruction isn’t necessary because students know how to get what they want from Google. If the new tool is like Google, then why does it require instruction?

There’s a lot to unpack in that question. First and foremost, what web-scale discovery borrows from Google does not make it Google. Searching Summon for scholarly articles will never be like searching Google — not because Summon cannot approximate Google’s user experience, but because scholarly communications will never be like the things students use Google to find.

Consider the freshman student looking for a pizza parlor that will deliver to his dorm. He comes to his commercial web search with a knowledge base and a self-defined need: pizza literacy, let’s call it. Having eaten and enjoyed pizza countless times in the past, he knows what it is and the range of forms it can take. Over time, he’s developed a preference for sausage, but tonight he wants pepperoni. Perhaps in this instance, he’s working under unique constraints — he saw a coupon somewhere, and is hoping to find it online. Whatever his specific pizza need, could there be any doubt that this student has the literal and conceptual vocabulary to effectively communicate that need to Google? In a way that will undoubtedly yield him with an informed pizza-choice?

Of course not. But consider the same student, his belly now full, turning to the research paper for his freshman composition course. Unlike his soul-deep craving for pepperoni, his need for “2-3 peer-reviewed articles” has been externally defined. If she is like too many of her peers, the professor assigning this requirement hasn’t done so in detail nor explained her pedagogical purpose for including it. She has given our hero but one bread crumb: go to the library website. Assuming his library’s discovery tool is featured prominently, it can potentially spare him the UI nightmare that would otherwise be the process of selecting a database to search. That’s quite a mercy, but it really only helps him with the first of many steps.

To find the scholarly articles that will meet the paper requirement, the student will need navigate a host of alien concepts, vocabularies and controversies that will, at least at first, drive his experience with peer-reviewed scholarship. And while some degree of anxiety is probably useful to his learning experience, there can be little doubt that the process would be easier and of more lasting value to the student who has support—human support—as he goes through it.

Put another way: good learning is best facilitated by good pedagogy. The tool is not the pedagogy and it’s hard to imagine how it ever could be. Because of all the concepts and conventions implicit to scholarship, the scholarly resource that is not improved for students by expert intervention is and always will be a chimera. The future of teaching librarianship as a profession will only demand more vigilance on this point.

But for all these caveats, with the right framing discovery can be an excellent pedagogical tool. Because it relieves so many searches of the burden of that first question — which database should I search? — we can use our time with students to construct, together, answers to questions we all find more compelling. What is peer review? Why does it matter? Why would a professor use it as a standard for student research? Each can be elegantly demonstrated with discovery, and best of all, students can demonstrate it for themselves and each other while my guidance focuses on the concepts and conventions underneath all the clicking.

Rather than giving in to the temptation to compare discovery to Google as a means of marketing it to students, we should go out of our way to contrast the two. What is the difference between the commercial internet search and the library tool? What is the purpose each exists to serve? How does the commercial internet search engine decide what to show you? How does discovery? You might be surprised how sophisticated students can be when they’re given a space suited to sophistication. Discovery can help to create that space in your information literacy sessions.

Even in freshman courses, I’ve found that I’m able to dive right in to activities that lead to genuine and rewarding discussion. In one, for example, I have students choose a search term — usually the name of a superhero — and ask them to search it in both Google and in Summon (with the box checked for “scholarly” results only). To the average student my sessions, the distinction between thedarkknight.warnerbros.com and Batman and Robin in the Nude, or Class and Its Exceptions is instructive on its face. Discovery makes juxtaposition like this one quick, fluid, and highly demonstrable. My students don’t need to read more than the title and abstract of the latter to have a sense of the distinction at hand.

Discovery is also a great tool for “citation chasing.” Projecting a full citation in front of the classroom, I’ll preface the activity with a brief discussion of the citation itself. What is this text Pete is projecting on the board? Why does it exist? What are its component parts, and what do they tell us about the object it describes? Then I poll the students: how many of you think you could find the full-text of the article this citation describes using the library website? Depending on the class, anywhere from none to a half of the students raise their hands. Without discovery, I wouldn’t be able to say what I say to them next: The truth is you all can. So please: do. Within three minutes, the entire class has the full-text article on their own screens.

Discovery is not the tool for every task. Controlled vocabularies don’t federate well, and the student asking very specific questions of the literature is better off going straight to the disciplinary index. Known item searches proceeding from partial information are a recurrent challenge. We must be careful with the way we describe the scale of discovery to students. In our attempts to market discovery as convenient and easy, we may in fact be selling them on a product that doesn’t exist. In the absence of a clear purpose, convenience is not convenient.

But really, has convenience ever really been our only goal as educators? The commercial web has no doubt rattled the profession, and we must respond decisively to the vast changes it has brought to the information landscape. But when we start to speak primarily in terms of convenience, the risk is that we turn away from the terms of learning and pedagogy. It’s a choice you can make without even meaning to make it. The librarian who is able to choose between user education and user convenience, certainly, has the easier job. But will it be a job worth doing? Will his users get what they need from him? The hard thing, really, is find ways to give our users both with the fewest trade-offs. This is the tension at the heart of information literacy instruction. Romantics, we want to have it all. And so we should.

The Limits of Mobility

Some interesting articles about mobile technology caught my eye last week as I was finishing up the leftover turkey. Apple has come under fire for the reported inability of Siri, the voice recognition application on the new iPhone 4S, to find abortion clinics. As reported by CNN, quoting the American Civil Liberties Union:

“Although it isn’t clear that Apple is intentionally trying to promote an anti-choice agenda, it is distressing that Siri can point you to Viagra, but not the Pill, or help you find an escort, but not an abortion clinic,” the group wrote in a blog post Wednesday.

A spokesperson for Apple responded quickly:

“These are not intentional omissions meant to offend anyone. It simply means that as we bring Siri from beta to a final product, we find places where we can do better and we will in the coming weeks.”

This is but one example of problematic access and information issues with our mobile devices, a topic that was explored in more detail last week by Harvard professor Jonathan Zittrain in MIT’s Technology Review in his provocatively-titled article The Personal Computer is Dead. Zittrain begins by asserting that:

Rising numbers of mobile, lightweight, cloud-centric devices don’t merely represent a change in form factor. Rather, we’re seeing an unprecedented shift of power from end users and software developers on the one hand, to operating system vendors on the other—and even those who keep their PCs are being swept along. This is a little for the better, and much for the worse.

Zittrain continues with an analysis of the state of mobile software development for Apple and Android devices, and the restrictions this development operates within. In Apple’s case users are limited to the software available in the company’s commercial space: the App Store (unless the device is jailbroken). Android apps are potentially available outside of the Android Marketplace, though I wonder whether many users go to the extra effort to locate and download those apps. In both cases developers are tied to the operating system of the device which dictates the parameters of the software. Perhaps most distressingly, there are hints that a similar environment for software development may soon be prevalent even on the PC: Apple has already introduced its App Store for Mac.

How does this aspect of mobile computing affect us as academic librarians? While we still have a sizable number of students without smartphones on our campuses on average,* there’s no question that smartphone and tablet usage is on the rise overall. What challenges will we face that accompany the increasing reliance on mobile devices? Certainly library database vendors are rushing to develop apps for these devices — how will we promote these apps to our users and integrate their use with the library website and other existing services? And while many libraries are also developing apps, that strategy may not be feasible for smaller libraries that already feel stretched by the efforts to provide digital library services.

Access to information — an aspect of information literacy — may also be affected by these restrictions around mobile devices. We’ve already read about the possibility of a filter bubble that impacts Google search results. With the increasing move to an app-driven environment, could an internet search provider’s app restrict or shape search results even further?

What should academic libraries be considering as we adapt to an information landscape that’s increasingly mediated by mobile technologies? How can we help our students, faculty, and other library patrons with their information needs while ensuring that they’re aware of the strengths and limitations that these technologies have to offer?

* The latest survey results from the Pew Internet Project show that the vast majority of undergrads have a cellphone (between 94-96%), and about 44% of 18-24 year olds own smartphones.

Thinking About ‘The Filter Bubble’

This month’s post in our series of guest academic librarian bloggers is by Jessica Hagman, Reference and Instruction Librarian at Ohio University. She blogs at Jess in Ohio.

Last fall, I taught a one-credit learning community seminar. During the week where we discussed research and library resources, I showed the class this video from Google, describing how the search engine works. I suspected that most students had no idea how links come to the top of a Google search results page and no basis on which to begin evaluating the results beyond page rank, a suspicion confirmed by research from the Web Use Project (previously discussed here on ACRLog).

Yet, when I asked whether the video surprised them or if the search engine process was different than they had previously thought, I heard the proverbial crickets. Finally, one student spoke up with a shrug, “I guess I’ve just never thought about it before.” While I probably shouldn’t have been surprised that few students spent time thinking about the mechanics of Google, it was startling to hear it stated so clearly.

I thought about this comment again a few weeks ago when I ran across a link to Eli Pariser’s TED Talk “Beware Online Filter Bubbles.” In the talk and his new book elaborating on the subject Pariser argues that companies like Facebook and Google use the data we share online to build a personalized bubble around each person in which they only encounter information, news and links that confirm their already established world view and assumptions. And while the bubble is pervasive, it is mostly invisible.

After watching the talk, my thoughts turned to the undergraduate researcher writing about a contentious social issue like gun control or abortion whose browser history limits the scope of the results they see on Google. I’ve discussed Google searching in many library instruction sessions, but it’s usually been to point out the poor quality of some of the search results and to encourage students to look beyond the first link. Starting in the fall, I will mention the personalization of search results as well, so that students are at least aware that their search results reflect more than just the keywords they searched.

The implications of the filter bubble may go beyond the research for a freshman composition paper, however. In the later chapters of his book, Pariser argues that the pervasiveness of filter bubbles may hinder learning, creativity, innovation, political dialogue, and even make us more susceptible to manipulative advertising. It’s difficult to discuss these consequences in a one-shot library instruction session, but to know that the bubble exists is a powerful first step to escaping it when necessary.

I will be teaching the learning community seminar again this fall, and this year I will show them Pariser’s talk. While I think it’s important that they be aware of personalized search and its potential implications, I’m also very curious to hear what students think about personalized search and a world of filtered information. While they may not have spent much time thinking about Google in the past, I hope that seeing the video will encourage them to think about how their own search history and browsing data affect what see – or do not see – online.

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.

Sudden Thoughts And Second Thoughts

ALA Demo Hell

I usually avoid the orchestrated demos many vendors offer at ALA – you know the ones I mean. There is a small seating area and there’s an infomercial-type presenter – or even worse an annoying robot or Elvis impersonator. My preference is to have a rep take me through a one-on-demo where I can interrupt with my questions. But I wanted to find out what the vendor was doing with a new platform rollout, and they said “We’ll be starting the theatre demo in a few minutes”. I needed to take a rest anyway, so I sat down.

The “theatre host” (I don’t know what you call these people) came over and said hello and announced my name to everyone within 50 yards since their sound system broadcasts to several aisles away. Who needs Foursquare to let everyone know where I am? Ms. Theatre Host (MTH) just took care of that. After a few other folks sat down MTH delivered the canned speil about all the great new features. Then MTH asked us if we were ready to “get in the zone”. What? I just want a damn demo.

Turns out there was no theatre demo. We all just shifted over to one sales rep who gave a canned demo on a 20” monitor. It took all of two minutes and didn’t yield much information. Why are you making seven people watch the demo on this tiny monitor when you’ve got a 72” flat panel right over there? They did give away a $25 gift card just for taking time to suffer through this. I didn’t win. Overall I felt like a loser. Is there anyone who actually enjoys these things?

A Post-ALA Tip For the Hungry

Prior to ALA you’ll find all sorts of “how to get the most out of the conference” tips being offered. Beyond the “carry a snack” tip I don’t see many suggestions for satisfying one’s hunger – which gets worked up quickly walking the exhibits or sitting through an interminably boring presentation. It’s true the library mags offer lists of “nearby” eateries, but when I’m in the middle of a busy conference day, I just want to grab something fast and cheap – and those magazine articles tend to list pricier restaurants that are farther away and chew up more time. Did you see the long lines and prices at any food booth in the DC convention center? Wait 20 minutes for a $6 cold and dried out hot dog? Forget that.

Did you know there was a great supermarket exactly three blocks and a five-minute walk from the convention center? Nowadays most decent supermarkets have lots of prepared food options. I walked over there and got a custom-made sandwich for $4.99, a huge orange for $.70, and a bottle of cold water for $.79. You could barely buy a bag of chips for that total amount in the convention center. I was back in the convention center eating my freshly made, healthy lunch in an air-conditioned room 15 minutes after I stepped out to buy it.You were probably still in line waiting to buy a stale, overpriced burrito. So the next time the library mags prepare their articles on food options for the conference, I suggest they scope out any supermarket or convenience stores within a 3-5 block radius of the convention center. That will do all of us a favor – hey – the bus folks might even include it on one of the routes.

They Still Don’t Get Us

A favorite librarian past-time is locating an instance of a journalist or author using “librarian” in some way – a metaphor or otherwise – that demonstrates a complete lack of understanding of what we really do or the skills we use in our work. For example, “Once she mastered speed reading, she could read more books in a day than most librarians could read in a week of sitting at the desk while they checked out books”. That sort of stuff tends to make our blood boil because whoever wrote it clearly has no idea what we really do and is just buying into that same old stereotype.

I made that one up (Ok, it’s not that great but you get the point), but here’s a real one I came across that’s a bit more sophisticated. In an NYT article about the opportunity cost of the wasted time people spend searching for things on the web (that is, there’s much free information, but is it really free if you spend 15 minutes trying to find it – what was the opportunity cost of your time), the author, Damon Darlin wrote:

Google makes it easier to get search results by suggesting possible search terms as a query is typed. (Engineers there, who must measure just about everything, had noticed that query lengths were becoming longer as we turned into a nation of research librarians.) Typing some queries gives you the results right on the top of the search page. Type in “poison center,” for instance, and you get the toll-free phone number for poison emergencies.

But he couldn’t have used “research librarians” more incorrectly in this context while trying to make his point. It’s just the opposite in fact. If we were turning into a nation of research librarians all the searching would in reality become incredibly compact and efficient – resulting in vast amounts of saved time. We’re not the ones typing statements such as “I need to find the phone number for a poison emergency center because I just swallowed some Drano” – that’s what everyone else is doing. Research librarians – knowing how Google is structured – would just type “poison center drano” or even more likely “antidote drano” (even in dire emergencies we can’t help but think smart). So while we all appreciate the power of search suggestions – it wasn’t needed because we turned into a nation of research librarians. It was needed because we are mostly a nation of search dummies.

Sheesh, will they ever get it?