by Barbara Quint
Editor, Searcher Magazine
Many moons ago at a collegial meeting … How many moons? Well, let’s say it was long enough that the attendees would have recognized the “many moons” phrase as taken from the lingo of Western films, a cinematic genre which seemed eternal at the time. Anyway, many moons ago at a collegial meeting of information professionals, one of the surprise attendees was the chief executive of a promising Net newbie. Kuh-uhl! Of course, we hoped our conversations would prove to him that librarians were brim to the rim with the right stuff for the coming Third Millennium. At one point, he grabbed a notepad and pen and started taking notes like crazy. He spotted me watching him and gave me a wink and a thumb’s up. Whee! That got him!!
That what? I’ve long forgotten. Did we see him at next year’s meeting? No. In fact, never again. Why not? Perhaps he was too busy implementing whatever exciting suggestion he had gained from our discussions. Perhaps he was too busy — period. In any case, the company no longer exists, a fate which our suggestion couldn’t have caused. That particular annual group meeting gathered only right-minded searchers, ones obsessed with the interests of their clients and the information-seeking behavior of end users. Suffice it to say, the group was not into MARC records (“Size of book in centimeters, please”), AACR2 rules (“Bill, Buffalo”), or LC Subject Headings (“Holy See. See See, Holy”).
Musing on that past experience, however, brought me to consider — once again — the problem of negotiating beneficial change for clients in a world of freebie “vendors.” Influencing vendors who want our money may not be easy, but it is something we have all learned to do using the obvious leverage. But how do you move commercial organizations to improve what’s being offered for free? Answering that question becomes more and more important as the freebie services reach more and more of our clients and, in some cases, take over some of our role at servicing client needs. When darkness falls and academic librarians climb into their trundle beds for a well-deserved good night’s sleep, it’s Google Scholar and Windows Live Academic Search and Elsevier’s Scirus that will serve the needs of the 2 a.m. scholars. And, let’s face it, when dawn breaks — or even when the noon bell rings — the Web search engines may still hold the rapt attention of our clients. And why not? We professional searchers turn to them, too.
At the open-forum, Tuesday evening session of Internet Librarian 2006, the final question aimed at the panel of senior managers for those three services asked specifically what the information professional community could do to help them do a better job. One manager asked us to help them increase their coverage. Another wanted us to make more people aware of what they had to offer. Bottom line: The search engines build their revenues on eyeballs. These engines may have grandiloquent although apparently sincere goals, such as Google’s often proclaimed mission “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” But attaining even noble goals takes money and the resources and talent that money can buy. That means revenue or sufficient promise of revenue to attract capital. And in the world of the Web, that means eyeballs.
As the old jazz classic proclaims, “Find out what they want and how they want it. And give it to them just that way.” Web search engines want to supply what people want and supply it quickly and conveniently. Sometimes that will be entertainment; friendly or, at least, lively discussions; and social networking. But sometimes it will be accurate, timely, authoritative information reliable enough to act upon with some degree of safety. In these more discriminating, critical areas is where we information professionals have spent our professional lives. Here we possess the expertise and experience and connections that could prove useful to the Web search engines. Sharing our expertise, our experience, and our connections could give us, if not leverage, influence on what comes next from the search engines.
So how do we get started on reaching out to the Web search engines? Well, first, of course, let’s research those engines and their goals. Let’s break them down into units reflecting different market goals linked to different content or features. Let’s build a directory of key players within each company, building access points to the right people. Let’s find out how the right people at the search engines like to hear from people and sidle into their line of sight. For example, Google has pages that reflect which sources it peruses regularly and all the companies have press relations staff — internal or external — responsible for different aspects of company service.
Some services deliberately reach out to information professionals and librarians, e.g. Google’s library newsletter. But do we reach out to them? Do we info pros have e-newsletters that go to the search engines suggesting needed changes? Do we have lists focused on discussing search engine performance in our areas of interest? What about a blog linking to reviews, suggestions, complaints, etc., across the body of information professional sources, both published and less formal?
As for what we can offer to do for them, perhaps we should schedule some meetings to find out what content coverage these services would like to expand. We know most of the commercial vendors and might use some of our influence there. It might have more impact than one would imagine. Some staff at traditional information industry vendors justify advising caution at dealing with the Web search engines with claims that it might anger librarian customers. If we ask them to open their content silos up to the search engines, that argument goes away.
Many of us are already conducting classes to train end users in efficient use of Web search engines. Some of the Web search engines even supply teaching materials for such classes. Do these engines also have feedback survey forms? If not, we could ask them for suggestions on what they need to know and incorporate it into our own feedback. No names, of course — privacy protection prevails — but we could consolidate suggestions, circulate them among colleagues, and send back the distilled wisdom. Speaking of feedback, we should also monitor the impact of our suggestions and quickly reward implementers with pats on the back and promotion in our discussions and our training programs.
Engineering change may not always involve direct relations with the titans of Web searching. Sometimes you can achieve changes indirectly. For example, I was talking with an executive at CrossRef.org, the reference-linking network for scholarly publishers. CrossRef.org recently added a new feature called Simple-Text Query that allows anyone — publisher, author, editor, librarian, author, etc. — to load a bibliography into its service and receive back Digital Object Identifiers (DOIs) for all the citations. Adding DOIs to bibliographic citations enables systems to link to licensed content. Now CrossRef already has penetrated the search engines through arrangements with Google Scholar, Windows Live Academic Search, Scirus, et al.
When I asked the executive how the organization planned to promote the service, sudden silence. Reaching out to authors directly would involve major marketing campaigns across all fields of scholarship. Or, I suggested, promote the service with librarians, e.g., at professional society meetings and publications, and let the librarians tell their clients. CrossRef would have a feasible, cost-effective promotional campaign. Librarians would look digitally au courant to their clients and bosses. And the Web search engines would get better automatically. Not that we’d let them forget that we information professionals had helped improve their content. After all, we need to promote our performance too.
Barbara Quint's e-mail
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