Wednesday, March 09, 2005

If Google doesn't see it . . . it doesn't exist - by Joe Schallan

Came across this post at PUBLIB. The author, Joe Schallan, has very kindly given me permission to re-post his message here. The post has not been edited, though the words in bold are my doing. What I agree with Joe are these points:
  1. For most people and most questions, Google is good enough. Case in point -- teachers who accept student assignments (filled with only web resources) also think that is good enough.
  2. People are more inclined to use Google because it has a very simple-to-use interface and has stayed consistent. In contrast, there interfaces of online databases take too much time for users to learn how to use them effective. Hence, see point 1.
  3. Like Joe's library, the online databases in NLB libraries are very underutilised. See points 1 & 2.
OK, here's what Joe has to say (thanks for sharing, Joe).
Last month, in a Publib posting ("Scientific American to librarians: Drop dead"), I repeatedthe assertion of Javed Mostafa, professor at the Indiana University School of Library and Information Science, that googling has become synonymous with research.

We do not like this, not just because our job security may be at stake, but, more importantly, because as librarians we also know what people miss out on when they rely solely on a search engine.

But Professor Mostafa is undoubtedly correct.

For most people and most questions, Google is good enough. Not necessarily "best" -- not most comprehensive, not most accurate, not most authoritative -- but good enough.

However, if for most people Google is indeed good enough, then this also means that for most people, whatever Google can't or doesn't find doesn't exist.

And I've become convinced that for all practical purposes, those expensive online databases we librarians license do not exist for most patrons, because Google does not "see" them.

My public library is probably typical -- we license Ebsco Masterfile Premier, Biography Reference Bank, Ancestry Plus,, Grolier Online, Informe!, SIRS Researcher, Opposing Viewpoints, Mitchell OnDemand, Gale Literature Resource Center, Magill On Literature, Novelist, ABI/INFORM, Gale Business and Company Resource Center, ReferenceUSA, Gale Health and Wellness Resource Center, CollegeSource, Learning Express Library, Ebsco Newspaper Source, Newsbank, and others. We have licensed the great bulk of these to allow home access via library card number and PIN as well as use inside the library system's buildings.

We promote these databases aggressively by publicizing them (including two mass mailings to the 80,000 households in our city) and by encouraging reference librarians to "sell" them in every patron encounter in which it seems appropriate to do so.

When I'm on the desk, I never miss my opportunity to push these excellent resources. Patrons act impressed, nod their heads in agreement, and often seem fascinated when I demonstrate one of the databases to them. They often exclaim that they had no idea their library offered such wonderful stuff.

And then they go home and google.

Or at least that's what I think they do, because the numbers we're getting reported back to us by the vendors do not indicate heavy use.

So what's going on here?

I will call it -- not with any originality, mind you -- the path of least resistance.

Google's greatest assets aren't its coverage or methodology (though both are impressive); Google's greatest assets are its name and interface.

The interface has been kept clean, uncluttered, and simple. In a digital world that daily grows more cluttered and user-hostile, Google offers one of the very few simple online experiences: You go to Google; you type in your keywords. That's it.

Someone high up at Google apparently realizes the value of that clean initial screen -- how it stands as a beacon in an online world of clutter. They've resisted the temptation to load that screen up with graphical and iconic bric-a-brac (except for a little bit of the stuff humorously deployed on holidays).

There's just the Google logo, plus a box in which to type search words, plus just enough discreetly displayed links for the few who are interested in digging deeper, and . . . lots of white space.

Yes, we clever librarians know that there's more to Google than that simple initial screen -- advanced search features, Google hacks, and the like -- but everyday users don't care about that stuff. They take the path of least resistance.

Unfortunately for us, our magnificent library databases offer anything but the path of least resistance: Our patron goes to our home page, then clicks on "Information Databases," then surveys the menu of offerings and tries to figure out which is the one she or he wants, then clicks on the link to that resource, is then prompted for her or his library card number and PIN if at home (and who wouldn't want to be using this stuff at home?), and, then -- voila! and at last! -- is ready to enter her or his keyword or key phrase into, say, Masterfile Premier.

And, then, of course, our patron may want to switch to a search in one of the OTHER databases, so there's more going into and backing out of menus, clicking links, and so on, plus she or he gets a COMPLETELY DIFFERENT INTERFACE with each database, each with its own demands and idiosyncrasies.

And so our patron just googles instead.
The path of least resistance!

And so it struck me today: Our wonderful online products will never get the use we wish they would UNTIL GOOGLE SEES THEM.

Imagine doing a Google search in which the results list includes hits in Masterfile Premier, ABI/INFORM, Newsbank, etc. Our patron clicks a hit of interest and . . .

And that's the rub, isn't it? How do the vendors get paid? How does your library "get credit" for the fact that it is your patron who has generated the hit?

I would think that the information industry and libraries have enough smart people to figure out how to partner with Google to make something closer to a Grand Unified Search a reality. (I can hear Walt Crawford guffawing now at my naivete.)

And, yes, I know this scheme never quite worked out with Northern Light, but . . .

I'll stick to my guns: Until Google "sees" our electronic databases, they will remain a vastly underutilized resource.

Because first and foremost, our patrons will google.

-- Joe Schallan


  1. Yes, these database vendors need to figure out an uniform interface and also look at integrating RSS feeds etc.

    The other side effect of google is that when people blog about articles they find. They link to those stories making it easier for others to find it. This rakes up the pagerank of article and more blogs write about it creating the long tail.

    While there stories that stay in a library database are never linked, thus have no tail at all.

  2. So libraries should make their records as open and as searchable as webpages... of course I don't know the technical details of how this is possible but if it can be done... man!


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