I have long agreed with Danny Sullivan of SearchEngineLand.com on most things but I have to respectfully disagree with one of his recent comments with regard to Microsoft’s and Google’s book digitization projects. Sullivan, quoted in In Microsoft vs Google, Search is True Prize published in the Guardian Unlimited on February 2, 2008 and currently available via the Semantic Web Company website, said:
The projects are strategic, said Danny Sullivan, Editor-in-Chief of SearchEngineLand.com. Sullivan said Google sets the tone by spending large sums of money to develop new businesses without rushing to make money back. Books is one example. It undertakes many “pie-in-the-sky” projects betting some will become big money-spinners once they are popular, allowing Google to sell advertising alongside them. “Microsoft and Google are both building libraries and the way you get the books off the shelves at these digital libraries is through their search engine. Their search engine is an electronic librarian,” Sullivan said. “The battle shouldn’t be over getting the books, the battle should be over who is building the best librarian.”
Yes, search engines have come a long way since the 1990s, but they have not reached the capabilities that would put them kin to a librarian. What skills and knowledge to librarians possess that search engines don’t?
- Librarians have critical thinking skills that allow them to look at a question from many angles before working on the answer.
- Librarians understand nuances that aren’t contained in the text of a book or web site.
- Librarians have muti-dimensional problem solving skills. They understand that questions could lead to more questions and answers could lead to more problems.
- Librarians recognize differences in their users that search engines have yet to learn. Humans know more about human motivation than computers could ever understand.
- Librarians ask questions. They are taught to ferret out the researcher’s real question through reference interviews. Researchers often don’t know how to ask the right question to get the answer they are seeking. Reference interviews aren’t set questions and answers that a computer can put forth and understand. They are discussions between two human beings that lead to a better understanding of the question by both parties and better answers for the researcher.
My sister, while doing some research recently, likened searching on the internet to setting off fireworks. The search is like an explosion that sends millions of answers off in several directions much like a firework can send fire and color up into the night for all to see. While reviewing one set of answers, another set of fireworks could be set off distracting you from what you already found and taking you further away from what you need. There is no one to guide you to the right materials.
Building a better librarian (er, search engine) is a lofty goal and we all know we need better search engines. However, thinking of a search engine as a librarian is a bit short sighted. I’ve worked with good librarians who, while even using bad search engines, find information we would have thought could not be found or used a few years back.
If an improved search engine could make a resources easier to find, think of what a librarian with a good search engine could do for your company. A search engine, no matter how good it gets, is still a tool. Librarians add a human element to online researching. They are the guides that can keep fireworks associated with holidays, not searching.