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The PLA Blog | Official Blog of the Public Library Association

LITA hosted a debate between Roy Tenant, Stephen Abram, and Joseph Janes about the future of search and how libraries will be affected. Will libraries have a place in society in the future? Will Google take over the world and leave us in the dust?

It fascinates me that this conversation keeps coming up. I know, it’s still relevant, but it seems like the messages that I heard in the portion of the debate I attended really seem to be the messages that I’ve heard over and over again since I was in library school 4 years ago.

Searching on the web sucks, as was mentioned in the session, and we all know it. Our patrons know it, too, but still they end up doing what they can with what they have, and really being OK with the first 10 search results they receive. Roy mentioned that Google will only outseat libraries if we let them, which I do believe is true, especially if we keep trying to compete in the same arena of search, instead of community. Points were made by Stephen Abram about how teaching boolean searching to patrons is really just silly, because they’ll never learn it, and that the new age of search is really about about solving problems in teams.

Roy relayed a story about how he explained the concept of WorldCat to an executive at Microsoft (I think, I could be wrong), and how the exec’s response was that it would be so awesome if WorldCat was just released to the internet wild, open source, with APIs that let people create applications that worked with and on top of it. Roy then said that he could imagine the people at OCLC freaking out (in a bad way) at the concept.

So what *if* we took WorldCat and made it *directly* open source? Why not create offer an API (Application Programming Interface) to allow poeple to create toys to make WorldCat work better and do interesting things for users? Why should we just be happy, as Stephen kinda put it, with WorldCat’s records being open in Yahoo? My response is that there’s a very defensive stance in the library world (especially with library vendors) about metadata, but it’s also, as Roy says, the issue of librarians not really being able to digest all the huge possibilities.

I live in a world where my friends share and keep up with friends’ lives on MySpace, LiveJournal, and Friendster, pictures are shared on Flickr, social plans happen through text messages and IM, on a daily basis. My friends are a hard-to-reach 21 – 40 with zero kids set in the library world, who use the same social networking applications as “millenials” (and play DDR and hang in Second Life and watch video on YouTube). We use open source applications, we happily play with the toys that come out of APIs for Flickr, Google, Yahoo!. And a good number of the people in that set live robust online lives, just like the millenials that Roy mentioned in his commentary.

Why this digression into my social set? Because the millenials aren’t the only group that exhibit these behaviors, and many of the people in my set are the new generation of *librarians* who are too often ignored. We see the value of these technologies and services, we want to integrate them into library services to adjust how we do things to reflect the affect online social networking is having on the offline, meatspace world. Not as a replacement, not as a way to unseat old-school librarians the way that people seem to think Google is trying to unseat libraries, but to find a way to take fun like tagging, social searching, and social bookmarking to serve a broader set of patrons.

So what’s my take? I agree with Roy, that Google and other search engines will only bump libraries if we let them. I agree with Stephen when he says we’re asking the wrong question, and we’re trying to compete in the wrong arena. We live in a world where information is power and yet omnipresent, and the ability to access that information is not the issue, so librarians just don’t own that market anymore. We need to stop clinging so tenaciously to the librarian-as-information-god-and-your-not defensive stance, and into a more open, community-oriented, socially-connected user experience stance.

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There are 4 Comments to "LITA debate on the future of search and libraries"

  • [...] [Updated June 25, 2006: I found two other writeups of this same session for comparison. Check them out here and here.] [...]

  • Paul Miller says:

    “Roy relayed a story about how he explained the concept of WorldCat to an executive at Microsoft (I think, I could be wrong), and how the exec’s response was that it would be so awesome if WorldCat was just released to the internet wild, open source, with APIs that let people create applications that worked with and on top of it. Roy then said that he could imagine the people at OCLC freaking out (in a bad way) at the concept.”

    It would, indeed, be awesome to see a comprehensive body of library holdings released to the Internet wild, with APIs that let people create applications that worked with and on top of it. That’s exactly what we’re doing at Talis.

    See, for example, http://www.talis.com/tdn/platform/ for documentation of the first set of APIs. See also http://directory.talis.com/ for one possible human interface onto the Directory of basic data about libraries and their holdings, and http://www.talis.com/tdn/greasemonkey/amazon-libraries for just one simple example of the opportunities that present themselves when anyone, anywhere, can build new applications on top of library data.

    There is no charge for sharing library holdings with this growing Platform, and the current set of APIs are freely available for developers to experiment with in their applications.

    By working, together, to increase the pool of data accessible to these APIs, we create opportunities for widely deployed services that we can foresee, and a whole host of potential applications that have not yet been imagined.

  • Scott says:

    Sometimes, it seems like we’re fated to be a step behind where we need to be. Before Google it was bookstores that “threatened” libraries, and a few years later we started seeing libraries (or parts of them, anyway) being modeled with bookstore-like features. For four years (and a bit more) we’ve been talking of the “threat” of Google (and Amazon, and Yahoo, etc.) and now – thanks to people like Roy, Andrew and John we’re finally starting to try and “match” some of the features that we see with Google. As with incorporating features of bookstores, this can certainly help improve library services.

    But… it seems to me that too often we follow, rather than leading. I think that part of the reason for this (yes, lack of money/resources is certainly another one) is – as you and Stephen point out point out – that too often we ask the wrong questions. For an industry that strives so hard to anticipate the needs of our customers, we just don’t seem to put significant trust in those customers. And that is something we must do if we are going to create “a more open, community-oriented, socially-connected user experience stance.”

 

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