Google and Libraries : yet another debate?

14 Sep

Interesting debate brewing in the land of cuckoo clocks and chocolate on the perenity of libraries faced by the giant Google. In other words, how do libraries cope in the light of the humongous numbers of references indexed by the californian search engine?

It all started with the annual conference of the Swiss Librarians’ Association (namely Bibliothèques Information Suisse) held from September 1st to the 4th at the new Rolex Learning Center’s Library in Lausanne, on the EPFL campus. A swiss news magazine, L’Hebdo, decided to publish a supplement to its weekly issue : “Libraries : Stronger than Google” (Bibliothèques : Plus fortes que Google). I was agreably surprised to see the topic mentionned at all in a swiss-romand (hear swiss-french) magazine and even more surprised to see two whole pages dedicated to my graduating university : the Haute Ecole de Gestion de Geneve, Information Science department. It outlined our specific curriculum as information professionals while inviting potential students to “give it a try”. But mostly the supplement covered the new hyper-modern library of the EPFL in Lausanne and its chief initiator David Aymonin reminding us of the validity of scientific libraries in the modern age. While I have not visited it yet, I assisted to a few presentations about it and I am quite sure that this new brand of learning center will (eventually) change the perception of academic libraries in western switzerland… all is good then?

Maybe not… If you follow the Swiss Librarians subscription list : Swiss-Lib, there have been a few notable reactions by professionals concerning the “showdown” of libraries versus Google. One in particular asked the question : is it necessary to affront Google on its own terrain? I mean, we ALL use search engines (Google is just one of the most popular and widely-used) and we ALL, at some point, find the answers we need. A example that was given in the post applied to a similar experience I’ve had a few months ago : my first-generation Ipod froze on me, as I was leaving the house, so I googled “Ipod freeze reboot” and got the solution in… a few nano-seconds… could a library have helped me resolve that issue?

Of  course, I am the last person to talk about the so-called limitations of our actual libraries and, even then, the right word would be “specific niche” that libraries can (and do) occupy.  To resume some of the arguments in a swiss-lib post, Google is following a dangerous road : spam, marketing of keywords, managing and indexing unlimited amount of data…. are they really doing “better” than libraries? To me, the challenges are great on both sides and remind us that libraries (like search engines) are there for a reason, even in paperless versions. Libraries select and filter huge amounts of data to give their users the ressources they want in order to achieve their information needs. While a few years ago, libraries were (apparently) seriously taking the toll on technology advances compared to emerging concepts such as web 2.0 (to name one), we have bridged the gap in ways no one probably even thought possible! There are still questions and issues to be resolved : bridging the digital gap for remote users, providing more and more online resources, maintaining our relevancy in the midst of a, still-present, economic crisis, keeping our trained staff and avoiding budget cuts, etc. However, libraries have proven (and still continue to do so) that we are still very much needed in a world of paperless and volatile information, we are the solid ground on which educational and cultural strategies of our modern societies rest on… even when the world revolves at astonishing speed!

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