The Fallacy of Relevancy

February 10, 2010 § Leave a comment

When asked whether libraries continue to be relevant in the age of Google, many librarians perpetuate a common but tired fallacy: the belief that searching for information in a library provides users with better results than searching for information on the Internet. Consider the following statement found in The Organization of Information, by Arlene Taylor and Daniel Joudrey (Westport, Conn.: Libraries Unlimited, 2009):

“[Search engines] may or may not provide results that are as intellectually satisfactory as the results from other retrieval tools… [M]ost users do not know if what they found is authentic, authoritative, or the best that is available on their topic.”

The problem with this statement is that it purports to criticize the tools available for Internet searches, but it’s really a critique of the corpus itself.

Suppose we took a snapshot of the Internet, printed it out, and then harnessed our team of infinite monkeys in order to catalog it according to AACR2 and LC subject headings, then loaded it into a huge card catalog. Would users now discover that what they find is any more authentic, authoritative, or more likely to represent the best information that is available on their topic?

Now let’s approach from the other direction. Suppose our team of infinite monkeys digitized the entirety of the holdings of the Boston Public Library in full text, then put it into our very own Google, with full-text searching and link analysis, etc. What would users find when they searched our very own Google? Authentic, authoritative results! – Provided that the librarians doing collection development for the BPL did a good job.

If this sounds like an argument that libraries are irrelevant, it’s not. The argument I’m trying to make is that librarians don’t understand what value they can still add in the world of the Internet and the Google.

What can librarians do that Google still can’t? Well, for one thing, librarians can still select the right resources to add to their collections. They can study how their users search for resources and use that knowledge to inform the design of search systems and user interfaces. They can continue to develop in their role of helping the general public with information and technology literacy. They can support smaller, nonpublic or special collections that can’t or won’t be digitized, or that can still benefit from careful subject analysis.

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