Shhhhhh! Quiet Please!

Some time in the early 2000’s… probably 2001, back when I used to work for one of the emerging search engines, I was drafted to give a presentation to the American Library Association… or perhaps it was the Association of American Librarians… I don’t recall exactly which. I do recall the meeting happened in New York City at some place lined with marble and was eerily quiet. It felt appropriate that such an august grouping should meet in such a tranquil venue. In any event, I had been asked along as a representative of one of these upstart search engines. Although the meeting was cordial, I received something of a drubbing at the hands of those very nice people. I have no idea what I presented, but I’m sure it included diagrams featuring cloud shaped objects representing the Internet and vague explanations of how we managed to index and search as many as a billion internet pages in split seconds. As I type that brings back happy memories of the race to create the first billion page index… I think we got there first, but Google passed us shortly after and they are still going at roughly 50Bn and counting.

The consensus opinion back then was that these upstarts wouldn’t catch on and would never replace the expert guidance and knowledge base of the traditional librarian. A decade or so later, that doesn’t sound like such a safe bet. I was reminded of that far off time by a couple of recent developments. The first is worthy and I have to imagine a crushingly dull report on articles about search engines and the impact of search written by librarians over the past decade or so. From the summary I zipped through, it sounds like they managed to cram in most of the stages of grieving into roughly the first five years of the last decade. The started with Denial, which was pretty much when I met them and worked their way through.  Anger (how dare they…don’t they realize we have qualifications in this field?) to Bargaining (If we let them do the pop culture stuff we will focus on the hard intellectual areas)… through Depression (How long ’till I can retire?) to Acceptance (OK it’s here, how can we help people become better searchers).

The other development which I thought nicely underscored these changes is the recent introduction into the main search results by Google of content from scholar.google.com.  This is a specialized index of content which has been around for a while. In general, it appears to be well researched longer articles which are  heavily cited by other sources. Not every search will trigger this kind of result. For example, a search for Amanda Bynes generates typical news and gossip results focusing on the unfortunate antics of this young lady. However a search for Alcohol Induced Psychosis yields a group of scientific and medical articles from the Scholar index above the other results. Back in the good old days (by which I mean the early 2000’s), the level of depth and quality of research would typically only be found at an academic library under the steely gaze of your friendly local neighborhood librarian… now, it’s there for free any time day or night on Google… but do you feel smarter?

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