A Valuable Disruption?

Two worthwhile articles on the potential impact of digitizing books – and the challenge Google has posed to concepts of copyright and fair use – are well worth a read.

The Washington Post presents the Google position – isn’t it a great idea to digitize all books so they can be discovered? Gee, whiz! And the publisher’s position – not unless we get a piece of the action and our rights are upheld. Part of the trouble is that nobody’s quite sure what exactly the action is or what rights are involved. Certainly, Google can generate some advertising revenue as they do now indexing the Web. But what else might they have up their sleeve? The company’s famous unwillingness to get down to details or talk about the future is a part of the problem. A fair use claim is one thing but other potential but undisclosed uses is another, and it’s clouding the issue. Right now the discovery process is under way for the pending lawsuits, which may force Google to be more forthcoming. (Google – discovery? That’s gonna be interesting.)

In First Monday, Paul Courant, a UMich professor of economics and public policy, discusses fundamentals of libraries and scholarhip in a Google world – and the conflict between sharing information and monetizing it.

Collaboration, across time and space, is the fundamental method of scholarship, and without it we can do nothing of value. Collaboration takes wildly different forms in different disciplines, and how it is done and can be done is affected in different ways by the new information technologies. But a positive (and disruptive) element of the new IT is that almost everywhere it makes collaboration easier, provided we can get at the material. In other words, if we focus on the purposes and mechanisms of scholarship, the new technologies are (or should be) our friends.

So what’s the problem? Current copyright law. He says

most copyrighted and potentially copyrighted material has no street value, while the corpus of it is of great value indeed. Somewhere between 95 and 97 percent of the copyrighted material in the University of Michigan libraries is out of print. The cost of getting permissions and finding rights holders for the vast quantity of material that is neither current nor very old can be prohibitive (Covey, 2005). And there is no gain in this for anyone.

Some kinds of current research and publication are rendered nearly impossible by copyright. My colleague Margaret Hedstrom (2005) offers the following example: An independent filmmaker is working on a project to produce a documentary on the evolution of video and computer games and gaming culture. She wants television coverage, commentary on games, ads, clips from movies of people playing games, interviews with developers, enthusiasts, and the games themselves. She may want pictures of old games to show the evolution of the genre. To proceed, the filmmaker will need researchers to find the material and its owners, and legal counsel to clear rights and to gain permission to reproduce few seconds or minutes of everything. She will need permissions for the interviews. And more. All of this imposes costs over and above the cost of doing the research itself, plausibly a multiple of the research costs.

The preceding is just one stylized example. The current rights environment makes it extremely difficult to use any commercially–produced material, including advertising, in scholarly work. While scholarly work should generally be considered a fair use, it is expensive and risky to make the case. As a result, otherwise feasible projects that would be of social and academic value will simply not get done, and valuable work will not get published solely because of the risk of lawsuits.

This is a system that must be disrupted, and for reasons that I hope will become clear later in this discussion, I believe that the digitization projects that Google and others are undertaken will help in the disrupting.

Will Google’s digitization of in-copyright books destroy publishing? Not if they only let searchers see snippets. Will it save scholarship? Not if researchers can’t get their hands on the whole book. Will it stir things up? No question about it. And I agree with Courant: it’s about time.

Are Web Searchers Getting Better

Some new research coming out of the University of Indiana in Bloomington suggests that search engine users are improving their results as evidenced by their use of more search terms. This would seem to contradict earlier research that indicates that 6 out of 10 search engine users never use more than one word in their searches. This new study was designed to determine if a true “Googlearchy” exists. This refers to a popular notion that engines that rank results by the popularity of sites provide inherently unfair results because they favor the most popular sites and help them to grow even more popular, which may prevent far better sites from being retrieved in search results.

So the researchers set up a study where they examined the results obtained by two different types of searchers, those who only used search engines and those who browsed without search engines, instead following links from one page to another. So what happened?

[The researchers] expected the real-world data to fall somewhere between the two extremes: targeted searching and haphazard surfing. Instead, it turned out that typical Web use — presumably a combination of searching and surfing — concentrated less on popular Web sites than either model had predicted. In other words, real-world Web searching does not fuel the Googlearchy nor does it keep less-popular sites from being found.

The researchers said the outcome appears to be based on the trend that:

more and more people are searching for more specific information. If someone submits a general query, say, “bird flu,” the results at the top of a search-engine’s results page will indeed list high-traffic websites, for example, the Centers for Disease Control site. And that site’s popularity will be reinforced. But Web searches are becoming increasingly more complex, according to Menczer. A search for “bird flu Turkey 2005” will bring up far fewer results, and lead to more obscure pages.

So I’m questioning if searchers really are getting more sophisticated in the way they do their searches? I still tend to see many of our students using just one word or typing in rather long, formally structured sentences (usually something taken right out of an assignment). Of course, other researchers questioned the results of the Indiana studying, suggesting there were some issues with the data used and whether the searchers in the study really represented average Internet searchers. Those issues aside, as academic librarians we should be eager to promote the gist of the research findings. As one of the researchers put it, “the message here is that as soon as you become a slightly more sophisticated searcher, then you’re breaking the spell of the Web,” meaning that when you take the time to develop a more thoughtful search strategy you take greater control over the search results rather than just settling for the most popular sites that an engine like Google spits back. And even if we can convince students about the benefits of using a more sophisticated search (i.e., more than one word), we still need to contend with earlier studies that indicate only 3% of searchers tie words together with quote marks, and a mere 1% use other advanced search techniques to get better results. Just another reason why a little user education could go a long way towards helping our user communities get better, less biased search results.

The Lush and Vibrant Library

Though it likely didn’t get the readership that “The Deserted Library” did, the Chronicle’s Scott Carlson followed up with a good and thoughtful overview of what makes new libraries work and how different libraries conceptualize what they’re trying to accomplish, originally published last fall but featured recently in the Chronicle’s e-mail alert. It’s still a timely piece, well worth reading.

For example, the University of Chicago, in keeping with its traditions, is interested in exposing students to as many physical volumes as possible. They don’t want the library to be a student center. According to sociology professor Andrew Abbott, “The faculty is united in thinking that this building is supposed to be the research center of one entire wing of intellectual life at the campus, and we can’t afford to let it turn into an Internet cafe.”

Hal Shill at Penn State Harrisburg conducted a survey that found fascinating results.

The responses from about 180 institutions revealed surprising patterns. For example, Mr. Shill found that the location of a library on a campus made little difference in its popularity among students. Library size did not matter, nor did the number of study rooms in a building or the availability of wireless access. “The presence of a cybercafe — that was a wash,” he says. “It was not a statistically significant feature, but I would recommend it as a creature comfort.”

More basic comforts rated highly: the quality of natural lighting, the quality of work spaces, the quality of the heating and air-conditioning system, and the overall ambiance of the building. Computer and Internet access — such as the number of data ports, the quality of the telecommunication system, and the quality of the public-access workstations — were also vital to the success of a building.

I recall the collib-l list discussions when the “Deserted Library” article came out. Many academic librarians feared their presidents would read it and conclude “great, we don’t need to spend all that money on a black hole after all.” This is an article you don’t want them to miss. Send it to your president, your provost, your physical plant director, and your advancement office. Right now.

Google Jockeys For Conference Sessions

If you haven’t heard about Google Jockeys, the basic idea is that an instructor assigns a student to search Google during a class session so that the class can be alerted to material found on the Internet that relates to the class content. I guess to make this work you need at least two monitors or screens in the class room, one to show the instructor’s material and one to show the Google Jockey’s search results. I suppose it could be done with a single monitor or screen depending on how it’s handled. Since this is a relatively new practice there is no research on the impact of Google Jockeys in the classroom.

So I found it interesting to read that at the next Masie Center Learning2006 conference, many of the presentations will feature a Google jockey. According to the latest LearningTrends newsletter from the Masie Center:

During every Keynote/General Session, you will be able to see a screen with the results of on-going real time Google searches, based on the speech or interview. For example, as I am interviewing Lucy Carter from Apple, we might talk about the role of PodCasts for Blended Learning. Our Google Team will do a real time search on key elements,
display it for your interest and provide an edited search list for all participants.

Can something like this really help conference attendees or is it a trendy gimmick? Personally, I think I’d find it distracting to have a screen spewing Google results while there’s a presentation going on. Assuming the idea has merit how do I know the Google Jockey is an effective searcher. Maybe his or her searches are really missing some of the best information on the topic – and it may even be that a search engine other than Google could do a better job retrieving information on the speaker’s topic. And what’s with providing an edited list of the Google results? I could certainly do my own Google search if I was that interested in the topic. I’d much prefer the presenters to develop a resource list in advance and have it for me when I got to the presentation. I can see some merits of Google Jockeying in the classroom, but I’m just not sure it’s going to work all that well at a conference.

The Learning2006 conference is also going to offer real-time mindmap development:

You will be able to watch the development of a graphical MindMap. Every concept, metaphor and conversation thread will be captured in a linkable MindMap. References to books, links and research will be added by our MindMap team. At the end of the speech, the Thought Leader, myself and a team from our CONSORTIUM will edit and expand the MindMap to give to each participant.

Now this sounds like an interesting idea. It could be a great way to obtain a visual conceptualization of a presentation, along with relevant resources. I hope the Masie Center will make some of the mindmaps available to the public. No matter how things turn out I have to hand it to the Masie Center folks for their innovative ideas.

Who knows, maybe we’ll see a few Google Jockeys at the 13th National ACRL conference in Baltimore. Who wants to go first?

Moving Beyond Beginner’s Level

Creating Passionate Users is a popular blog, and I came across one or two other bloggers that mentioned this post that appeared there last week. The gist of the post is feature overload in electronic devices that causes their owners to simply stick with the basic default settings (sound familiar?). It made me think about our feature-laden aggregator databases. How many academic libraries stick with the default basic search screen? Basic mode hides many good features from the searcher. The author says:

If users are stuck in permanent beginner mode, and can’t really do anything interesting or cool with a thing they’re not likely to become passionate. They grow bored or frustrated and the “tool” turns into shelfware.

That part of the post really reasonated with me because I think we tend to convince ourselves that shielding our user community from some of the complexities of our library databases somehow benefits them. But that is apparently a good strategy for encouraging apathy and a lack of intellectual curiousity. These same library resources do offer features that could support the author’s other advice which is to “help passionate users learn to do something cool.” Okay, library databases are generally the opposite of cool, but in what ways can they open students’ eyes and get then interested, activated, and on the road to developing some passion.

Like what, for example. Well, I’ve always had good success getting undergrads to sit up and pay attention when I show them those databases that incorporate tools for creating formatted citations. They tend to think that is pretty cool because deep down no one really likes writing citations. [click on thumbnail to go to enlarged image]


What else don’t academic searchers like? Well they tend to love Lexis/Nexis but they don’t care much for getting loads and loads of real short and unsubstantial articles (you know the ones I mean). So they find it pretty cool when I show them how to use the “length>wordcount” command (as in length>500) to limit retrieval to those articles that exceed the required number of words. It’s easy to remember, takes no great skill, you don’t have to use the word “boolean”, and it’s easy to do because of the FOCUS feature, which they also find to be a revelation. Sure, it would be great if these things were more intuitive. Yes, there should be a prompt that says “would you like to remove all the articles with less than (insert number) words?” But the reality is that we’re not there yet. Learning something like “length>” is partially about exposure to more features, but it’s also about understanding what makes some information better than other information – and how to get it more quickly and efficiently. [click on thumbnail to go to enlarged image]


There are probably dozens of other ways in which we can move our users beyond the beginner’s level. But to take the first step in that direction we need to put some faith into user education. Those who claim library users don’t want to learn how to search, who advocate eliminating user education, and who will tell you it all needs to be simple are the same ones who want to keep the users on automatic mode where they’ll remain bored and void of passion. As the author of the post said, “it’s not that we couldn’t learn how to use anything but the automatic mode…the problem was that we didn’t know why or when to use anything else.” That strikes me as a good mission for library instructors, which is to move beyond the how and instead focus more on the why and when of our resources’ cool features. All we’ve got to lose are bored and passionless users.