Strength in Numbers
Editor • ONLINE
Libraries worldwide are under threat. Dismal economic conditions and the ubiquitous presence of information conspire in this. We’ve been through dismal economic conditions before and survived. The ubiquitous presence of information presents challenges we haven’t faced in the past. Yet information professionals should not despair. We bring a unique perspective to these dual challenges, and we have strength in numbers.
The popular press—and sometimes even the scientific press—suggests that all information can be found via the internet and that our behaviors change to fit this new reality. One recent study, by Betsy Sparrow, Jenny Liu, and Daniel M. Wegner, suggests that we no longer remember things as we used to. Instead, we rely on Google to be our memory. The study, “Google Effects on Memory: Cognitive Consequences of Having Information at Our Fingertips,” was published online in Science on July 14, 2011 (DOI: 10.1126/science.1207745). Ironically, although the article has been widely discussed on many websites, blogs, and forums, the original resides behind a subscription firewall. Even more ironically, author Wegner posted the full text on his website. People with access to Science through subscribing libraries have no access barriers.
Beyond the issue of memory, many academicians and information professionals decry the reliance on Google and other web search engines for scholarly research. In the corporate world, information from Google competes with that from high-end subscription databases. I hope that the unquestioning acceptance of Google results as ultimate truth does not prevail in any venue. As web search technology increasingly embraces personalization, results become biased toward the user. Google and its ilk will give me—and you—what it thinks we want to know rather than unedited, unfiltered data. This is the antithesis of traditional library research, whether it’s done online or off.
I also hope that policymakers understand that web search engines do not create information; they locate and deliver it. The U.S. government has recently proposed cutting funding for many data-gathering units, particularly those within the U.S. Census Bureau (www.census.gov). The result? Critical data gathering would cease. We would lose reports on U.S. population and housing, along with economic conditions data. Businesses, scientists, analysts, and demographers rely on this information, which can’t reasonably be collected by the private sector. If we lose these data sets, we lose some of our strength in numbers—the numbers won’t exist.
It’s hard for individuals to change public policy. That’s one reason to support professional associations. IFLA (International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions) has ably put copyright concerns of librarians on the WIPO (World Intellectual Property Organization) agenda. Pressure from U.S. library associations resulted in the resuscitation of the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) libraries. These issues affect researchers, knowledge workers, and information professionals, whether they think of themselves as librarians or not. If we are to further our profession, retain our jobs, and sustain our ability to find, analyze, and share critical information, we need the strength in numbers our associations provide. We also need a thorough understanding of the strengths and limitations of web search—and the ability to communicate this to our clientele.