Open Thread Thursday: Google vs The Public Library

I was reading Ned Potter’s post about being happy to never read another Google/library comparison again and it reminded me of something I had realized awhile back.

I used to wonder and worry about Google. How much of their work intrudes on the mission of libraries? What does it mean for the future of public libraries? Will I have a job in twenty years? Will technology and Google become so ubiquitous that the public library will be relegated to a niche support role in society? I’d lay in bed at night, unable to shut down my brain from this death spiral of thinking. But then I came to my own realization.

Libraries are not in competition with Google. Google is a tool. You do not get into fights with the equipment you use. That is like challenging a hammer to a nail pounding fight. It lets us look up the easy stuff faster so we can move onto the harder stuff. Who at a service desk wouldn’t want a tool like that? Librarians have dreamed about something that could put ready reference at one’s fingertips. Now that we have it, there is a perception of a threat. What gives?

Consider this thought: whether it knows it or not, Google wants public libraries. No, scratch that: it needs public libraries. We are the de facto in person customer support for Google. Public libraries are well positioned all over the US, staffed by friendly knowledgeable folks, and Google doesn’t have to pay our salaries. You think they want to get the customer service calls we get? That’s a negative.

Given the amount of internet service provided to the population, the continuation of the public library is in the best interests of any internet company that relies on the activity of its users to generate its revenue streams: Facebook, Twitter, Huffington Post, Big Government, every news or magazine or other site that relies on sharing to get its word out. I think there is a viable national scale advocacy effort in this as well. The existence of the public libraries allows people to use their services; as their services work around straight advertising and data mining, the less people with access to the internet means smaller data sets overall. I could make the connection to smaller revenues, but I don’t think it has an immediate cause-and-effect relationship since it is a matter of how that data is used.

Bottom line: Google (and other companies) are not competition for public libraries; they are tools to be used by libraries in the service of their communities. And they still need libraries.

(The same thing can be said for Wikipedia as I see it.)

What do you think? Is Google a threat? Or a tool? Or both?

This is an open(ish) thread. You can answer this thought or start your own.

9 thoughts on “Open Thread Thursday: Google vs The Public Library

  1. Yes! Exactly! And I just blogged about The Wikipedia Effect, a session I attended at ALA, and said basically the same thing about Wikipedia, as you mentioned. Google and Wikipedia are tools for us to use and embrace. My full post can be found here:, but that about sums it up for me. Thanks for raising this issue. Neither are a threat; both are tools.

    • Excellent! I didn’t think I was the only one who thought that, but I’m super pleased that someone else has and they are speaking out on it! Excellent. And thanks for the link to your post!

    • I think potentially it can be seen as a threat and it depends on what positive spin you want to put on it. Libraries subscribe to a number of online resources with a view that the public would access those resources to get accurate information. However I would argue that Google is the big threat in that respect that too many people find it easy to find information via google and not use the right sources. We have a big job to train the public in terms of distinguishing from what is good information and what is bad!

  2. I agree Google is a tool – I know I use so many of their services on a daily basis to do my job and in my personal life that it would be the height of ignorance to suggest otherwise. It’s a great tool to boot. The important thing to remember, though, is that Google does not need public libraries at all.

    The user is not Google’s true customer, the advertiser is. That’s probably part of why they basically abandoned their efforts to reach out to libraries as they planned to years ago. For them, I imagine they felt it was a lot of effort to reach a hyper-critical audience that doesn’t deliver much bang for the buck when it comes to the profit bottom line. We as librarians tend to glorify our role in Google’s success more than we should, and I think to do so is very dangerous and misleading. We may help people use Google and other web services and teach them how to think critically about how they search online, but they do a lot more for us than we do for them. We’re not their in-person tech support because we have no obligation to Google in particular – our allegiance is to the user. If anything, sometimes I feel more like Yahoo’s customer service desk, as their tools seem to be a lot more buggy, less intuitive and subject to creating patron frustration in a way that Google’s just don’t.

    Google services are so ubiquitous and easy to use that, in many cases, they can teach people to use their products themselves. What I feel we teach when we get neophyte computer users is far more basic and fundamental than any one service. People get basic knowledge from their local library in the form of computer classes, one-on-one help or courageous trial-and-error. Once they have that skill set, it’s up to them to choose which web services they prefer.

    If Google simply vanished tomorrow, we’d find another tool. They’re not indispensable at this point, especially with some of their more recent problems regarding search quality (that they are, in their defense, improving).

    Honestly, I find the Google vs. Libraries argument pretty tired at this point. I didn’t mean to ramble on so long, but this seems to be a topic that becomes grist for the mill once a year or so.

    • I agree to the “do it yourself” movement with information access. My point is just contained to when something doesn’t go right with an online search; the library is the de facto customer support (if consulted, of course; some people give up at that point.) But excellent points on the computer classes; speaking as one who teaches them at my branch, I feel there are two groups: there are those people who need the basic instruction and there are those who just need a bit of a confidence boost to use the ones that they have.

      Thanks for your comment!

  3. I’ll never forget the time I was teaching a group of freshmen about how to use Wikipedia as a short cut. The professor hadn’t been paying attention (he was chatting with a class visitor & I wanted to strangle him for that alone), but he chimed in when I said the word, “Wikipedia.”

    “But don’t cite it in my class!”

    I responded, “I told them not to cite it. I’ve been telling them to look at the sources cited. This entry has items from sources like Oxford University Press and Palgrave Macmillon. Instead of combing through our catalog or our databases, they can use this as an easy way to find highly academic and trustworthy sources.”

    He looked confused for a moment, and then said, “Just not in my class.”

    His prejudice against Wikipedia was getting in the way of his students making effective use of their time. Instead, he wanted them to do everything the hard way. (Or so it seemed.)

    To bastardize Gertrude Stein: information is information is information. Some of it’s crap. Some of it’s gold. Some of it’s crap in one context and gold in another. Wikipedia vs. Britannica. Google vs. Ebsco. Who cares? I want to teach the students at my college how to find it, evaluate it, use it ethically, and incorporate it (or not) into their existing knowledge bases.

    • Hear hear! Since I had my own reckoning, I’ve come to look at so many sites and services as tools to be used to help improve service and the lives of my patrons. It’s just opened up a world that isn’t afraid to find new ways to approach old things.

  4. I used to link Wikipedia regularly in my blog. Then it suddenly struck me that (a) the entry I link to may not be the same entry my readers read, and (b) I was doing exactly what I encourage my patrons not to do: use Wikipedia as a primary reference, when they specifically state they are not one. But not evil (nor is Google, by any stretch). Just a part of the picture, rather than the entirety.

  5. Pingback: Google+ for Nonprofits and Libraries? Maybe - The TechSoup Blog - Welcome to the TechSoup Community - TechSoup

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