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ONLINE SEARCHER: Information Discovery, Technology, Strategies

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A Perplexity of Platforms
Volume 42, Number 1 - January/February 2018

I’ve long been fascinated by collective nouns. Some of these are commonly used, such as a gaggle of geese or a school of fish, but others are more fanciful. An ostentatiousness of peacocks, anyone? How about a shelf of librarians or a relevance of online searchers? And, of course, there is the classic, an exaltation of larks. I’ll suggest we now face a perplexity of platforms.

Now that everyone searches online, the distinctions that professional searchers make between subscription databases and the web is lost on the general public. To them, every platform is equal. Google and EBSCOhost are equivalent; The Wall Street Journal looks just like the National Enquirer; the library catalog isn’t separate from its subscription databases; and an individual publication’s website is indistinguishable from Scopus or Web of Science.

Does this matter? Yes, because it could create a crisis in the library. Suppose a patron finds an article to be inappropriate when searching a subscription database, something the patron views as celebrating a lifestyle or political stance she finds abhorrent. The patron blames the library, believing it is responsible for that article appearing in search results.

Platform changes can perplex librarians, if not their users. When publishers change platforms, discovery services may encounter problems in the migration process, causing headaches for both the publisher and librarians. Customers come up with workarounds, but that’s not the ideal situation.

There’s also confusion between platform and publishing. If you read something you found via Google or Facebook, does that mean Google and Facebook are publishers? Or did these services simply provide a platform for publishing? The legal implications of platform/publisher are staggering. U.K. media regulator Ofcom has suggested reclassifying large web search and social media companies as publishers rather than platforms to combat fake news and extremist propaganda. At the moment, it’s merely a suggestion and unlikely to happen, but the debate is interesting and contributes to the perplexity of platforms.

When online searching was done by intermediaries (aka librarians), we knew that search strategies mattered. Entering chip into a search box could return results on computer chips, potato chips, a chip off the old block, and someone named Chip. We both adjusted our strategy on the fly and filtered results to weed out the extraneous information. What we transmitted to clients was tailored to their requirements. We took the time to ensure quality results, taking platform differences into account.

Information professionals know not to give legal or medical advice unless they have degrees in law or medicine. Today, a tremendous number of people go directly to the web for answers to their legal and medical problems. The advice they receive is not always stellar. Carrot juice as a cure for cancer. Refusing to pay taxes as a political statement. Strident accusations from one end or another of the political spectrum.

While we contemplate the perplexity of platforms, we must consider public platforms that are open to everyone along with the proprietary platforms of our discovery systems and individual databases. Perhaps it’s not so much a perplexity of platforms as a complexity of online research.

Marydee Ojala is Editor-in-Chief of Online Searcher (the successor journal to ONLINE) and writes its business research column ("The Dollar Sign"). She contributes feature articles and news stories to Information TodayEContentComputers in LibrariesIntranetsCyberSkeptic's Guide to the InternetBusiness Information Review, and Information Today's NewsBreaks. A long-time observer of the information industry, she speaks frequently at conferences, such as WebSearch University, Internet Librarian, Online Information (London, UK), Internet Librarian International, and national library meetings outside the U.S. She has adjunct faculty status at the School of Library and Information Science at IUPUI (Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis). Her professional career began at BankAmerica Corporation, San Francisco, directing a worldwide program of research and information services. She established her independent information research business in 1987. Her undergraduate degree is from Brown University and her MLS was earned at the University of Pittsburgh.


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