CNET news published an article this week entitled, “Most reliable search tool could be your librarian.” While it’s nice to see librarians getting some press, I remain concerned about our image, both as presented in the media and as we present ourselves.
The article contains the usual rhetoric about caution in evaluating the “authority” of information retrieved by Web search engines, the need for advanced search strategies to achieve better search results, and the bashing of keyword searching. Here, as in so many other places, the subtext is that “our” (meaning libraries’) information is “better” – that if only you, the lowly ignorant user, would simply deem to listen to us, we can enlighten you, teach you the rituals of “quality” searching and location of deserving resources rather than that drivel out there on the Web, that could be written by (gasp!) any yahoo out there.
Of course we know it’s not that simple. But the oversimplification is what’s out there. We’re not doing ourselves any favors by portraying ourselves (or allowing ourselves to be portrayed) as holier-than-thou, constantly telling people they’re not looking for things the right way or using the right things from what they do find, even though they thought they were getting along just fine. We simply can’t draw a line in the sand and say, “the things you find through libraries are good and the things you don’t are suspect.” There are really terrible articles in academic journals, and equally terrible books, many published by reputable firms. There are, on the other hand, countless very good resources out there on the Web, discoverable through search engines. And the line between the two is becoming ever more blurry as scholarly publishing moves towards open access, libraries are putting their collections online, government resources are increasingly becoming Web-accessible, and search engines gain further access to the deep Web.
The first strategy I feel we should be taking is to move discussion away from focusing on the resource and its authority to the information need. Evaluating an individual resource is of course important, but it’s not the first step. Let’s instead talk first about all the resources and search strategies that can meet a given need, rather than always focusing on resources and search strategies that can’t meet that need. There are many, many ways a user can successfully locate the name of the actor in the movie he saw last night, identify a source to purchase a household item at a reasonable price, find a good novel to read on a given theme, or learn more about how the War of 1812 started. Let’s not assume every information need is best met by a peer-reviewed resource, and make those peer-reviewed resources and the mediation services for them we can offer more accessible when these resources and our services are appropriate to meet those information needs. Let’s be a part of the information landscape for our patrons, rather than telling them we sit above it.