Sunday, March 20, 2005

"We're not competing with Google"

I was in a meeting recently that had as an agenda item Google Print and its effect on our current library services. (I seem to be having this meeting a lot lately.) I was by far the youngest in the room and by far the attendee working most frequently in areas outside of "traditional" librianship (whatever that means). I intentionally spent most of the meeting listening rather than talking. One statement in particular made by someone in the room struck me and started me thinking a great deal: "We're not competing with Google."

I didn't respond to it at the time, but the statement has been churning around in my head ever since. Whether or not it's true depends, of course, on what one means by "competing." If we mean, "attempting to do exactly the same thing," then that's pretty much true. While we're both in the information business, the way in which we approach it is fundamentally different. And that's OK. But if we mean "fighting for the attention of users" or "fighting for the perception that we provide valuable services worth funding," then maybe we are competing with Google. The differences between libraries' missions and the way in which we go about achieving them is important to us, but perhaps it's too subtle for a large proportion of the population. Certainly there are lots of folks out there that think Google can and will replace libraries, even if we think they're wrong.

So what does this mean? Well, I think it means that libraries need to continue to promote what we do and why. Not in the preachy Michael Gorman style proclaiming from on high to the masses that libraries are the cornerstone of high civilization and those who disagree aren't worth thinking about, but rather by building and delivering services that meet our users' needs. In the rapidly changing information environment, this means we do need to be rethinking how we do a lot of what we do. Let's remember our core principles of preservation, collocation, and free access, and find new ways to implement these in today's environment and for today's diverse users.

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