Recently I ineptly tweeted a statement I heard at a presentation with an unnoticed auto-correction that changed the meaning of the tweet a bit. This resulted in the usual protests, both public and private, but fortunately not enough of them to get me on the front page of the local paper (or any paper in fact). It did start me thinking quite a bit about the statement I tweeted, what I meant to tweet, and also about the futility of trying to correct anything once it is public on the internet. What I tweeted was:
But what I heard Kate say, and meant to write was “Libraries need to admit that we suck at search and get over it”. Libraries, as in library catalogues and systems, not librarians, as in the nice people who have lunch with me every day. Having worked in the field of library systems for eighteen long years, in every kind of library and for a systems vendor, I feel pretty well qualified to give an opinion on this topic. I really do think that library search tools simply are not up to the job of supporting modern web users to discover and use information. Take a look at Google’s Knowledge Graph (if you are fortunate enough to have it) and then look at a typical library catalogue. We look like amateurs compared to Google.
Google, with their predictive search, Knowledge Graph and awesome relevancy ranking, are clearly experts at search. They provide the gold standard search tool against which all others are compared and they continually improve it in an effort to make it better. They don’t compare themselves to Bing or anyone else, their goal is to better themselves rather than to be as good as anyone else. Google ships code to improve their search continually and spends a great deal of time and money researching online behaviour, including search and more importantly spam, then they use the fruits of their research to improve the output of their search tool. They also provide some pretty awesome training and tips to help us get the best from both their systems and our own search behaviour. I can’t think of any other company or organisation that would know more about every aspect of search than Google.
Libraries on the other hand don’t continually update their search tools. Most of us don’t build our own search tools, we buy vendor provided systems or, if fortunate enough to have staff with the right skills and time, install and use open source systems. Our library systems are updated probably once a year and sometimes those updates don’t include any improvements to the search interface. Most importantly our systems are not designed with user needs in mind, they are designed to work with library metadata and to support the specialist search techniques of librarians. Even the latest library discovery tools are based on metadata records. That means library discovery tools cannot take advantage of any new search algorithms developed for web search engines like Google that cover full text web pages. Libraries are metadata specialists and many librarians are metadata search specialists. Our training for users too often tries to turn them into mini-librarians too, as though being a specialist at finding things in the library is or should be a crowning achievement in life.
So I really do think libraries are NOT experts at search. In fact, compared to Google I think we pretty much suck at it. I also think most librarians are specialists rather than experts at search. But what I don’t understand is why this seems to be such a challenge to librarians.
I don’t believe that being experts at search is, or should be, the main mission of any library. Library search systems are just one of the tools libraries have used over the centuries to fulfil their mission, in the same way that books are just one of the containers for the information we collect, preserve and share. We shouldn’t be wedded to one tool for finding information or one container for holding information. Libraries need to focus on their real mission of collecting, preserving and sharing information for their communities rather than trying to insist that there is some pressing moral imperative for libraries and librarians to be perceived as experts in one particular tool. That doesn’t require us to be search experts but I suspect it does require us to be experts on the topic of our community and users.
Unless we know what information they need and value how do we know what to collect and preserve? Unless we know where they are looking for information online and in person how can we share what we have collected and preserved? We can’t force people to consider us experts or insist that they seek our advice or only use our collection. If we truly want to help our communities to build their knowledge then we need to get over this obsession with being seen as search experts and stop trying to convert every customer into a mini-librarian too. We need to go where they are, even if that means Google, Facebook and YouTube. If we really really feel we have to teach people something then I suggest helping them develop digital literacy would be much more valuable in the modern age than Boolean search techniques for library catalogues.