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Magazines > Searcher > January 2009
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Vol. 17 No. 1 — January 2009
SEARCHER'S VOICE
What's Next?
by Barbara Quint
Editor, Searcher Magazine

The Searcher's Voice PodcastThe best written show in the history of television was The West Wing. (I have spoken, but if you don’t believe me, Netflix or Blockbuster awaits.) And the recurring mantra of our beloved President Jed Bartlet, played by Martin Sheen, were the words, “What’s next?” Well, the 2008 presidential election is over and, however you voted, whomever you wanted to see in the Oval Office, we all — including the incumbent of that office — face an exciting, if somewhat daunting, future. Perhaps our pronunciation of the mantra may ring a little less positively than Sheen’s readings — more like “Oh my God! What’s next!?!” — but maybe not.

The prospects for information professionals may seem cloudy, but — again — maybe not. I remember a recession that hit in the mid-1970s. It hit libraries and librarians hard, but it actually led to the rise of the information broker, aka independent information professional. Empowered by online services, librarians emerged from institutional settings to start selling their services door-to-door, so to speak. Anecdotal evidence isn’t worth much to scholars, but I can report recent conversations with several information brokers in which they said they were drowning in work. Bottom line: When people are in crisis, they reach out for a lifeline, and lifelines for businesses and organizations usually mean information. Clients and patrons should need us now more than ever, but perhaps they don’t know that yet and perhaps we should find out whether they need us to be doing all the same things we have done.

I have never been prouder of being a librarian.

Enough of crisis talk, however. Let's talk about some good news. As we’ve all heard, the Google Book Search project has been operating under a cloud of litigation from the Authors Guild and the Association of American Publishers. As you may also have heard, the suits have resulted in a settlement agreement, which may go to the court for approval as early as this June. (For details, you might start by reading my Nov. 3, 2008, InfoToday.com NewsBreak, “The Google Book Search Settlement: ‘The Devil’s in the Details,’” http://newsbreaks.infotoday.com/nbReader.asp?ArticleId=51429. But even as of the date of this writing, there has been plenty more written on the subject, e.g., a joint publication of ALA and the Association of Research Libraries [ARL] entitled “A Guide to the Perplexed: Libraries and the Google Library Project Settlement.”)

If the settlement goes through substantially as designed, most of the more than 7 million digitized and full-text indexed books, the bulk of which comes from the libraries contributing to the massive effort, will become available to the American public with potentially revolutionary impact. Already the project provides 1-million-plus public domain books and documents for downloading. But under the settlement, in-copyright/out-of-print content, which a Google Book Search executive describes as the “vast majority” of the 4–5 million Google Library Project contributions, will be made available for access online (no downloading) to institutional subscribers (prorated pricing based on need and ability to pay). Though copyright holders — publishers or authors — can opt out of the arrangement, the system will default to full-text availability online. And every public library, including every branch, willing to allot a computer to viewing this content, can receive it free, without a subscription. The in-copyright/in-print books will join the other content on an opt-in basis from copyright holders.

However, even for the in-copyright/in-print books, user conditions will improve. No longer will “snippets” be the standard display for that content. Instead these books will get the same Preview mode displays used for the Publisher side of the Google Book Search project. That means large chunks of text, multiple pages, up to 10% to 15% of the total book content. In case you didn’t notice, all this should turn Google Book Search into the world’s most powerful — and most essential — reference tool.

Could this represent the “tipping point” for libraries? If any backwater branch can now access the collections of massive research libraries down to the chapter, page, and paragraph, all libraries become equal in their powers, don’t they? If institutional subscriptions prevail, could that mean city governments subscribing to access for all their citizens? Could this collection become every web user’s library? Has the world of one giant and universal LIBRARY finally arrived? Stay tuned. This is an issue we have covered regularly and will continue to cover this year and beyond, I suspect.

One thing, however: I have never been prouder of being a librarian. Throughout the Google Book Search Library Project, the participating librarians have stood fast with Google — even pushed and prodded it — to expand availability as widely as possible. Instead of choosing to build empires for their institutions’ distance learning programs or setting endless conditions and revenue-gathering limits in place, librarians have chosen to serve the world, to inform people far outside their constituencies. They have followed the highest professional standards to create the greatest possible public good. Damn fine!

But that’s not all that librarians are doing. A project underway by OCLC and two library schools — one at Syracuse University and one at the University of Washington — will develop a new broad search engine called Reference Extract based on the search expertise of librarians in answering real reference questions. (For initial details on the project, read another Infotoday.com NewsBreak, “The Wisdom of Crowds of Librarians on the Way — In Time: Reference Extract,” http://newsbreaks.infotoday.com/nbReader.asp?ArticleId=51692.) Actually, the Reference Extract project hopes to be more ingenious in its design, more a “credibility engine,” as one project leader described it, than just a traditional search engine. After all, it will be tapping the talent and experience of those crackerjack info pros known as librarians. Who knows what wonders may ensue?!

And, speaking of wonders, I wonder what searching will look like by the end of this editorial year, at least, serious searching. A number of developments have begun to convert searching into a collaborative environment. Microsoft Research has begun testing SearchTogether [http://research.microsoft.com/searchtogether] supporting togetherness as a search principle. Yahoo! has begun introducing Glue pages that can cross over contributions from other searchers. Google has a new SearchWiki environment that supports personalization of searching, but also interactive personalization by multiple persons. Hmm. I can see the establishment of teams of searchers led by skilled info pros or, maybe even teams of skilled info pro searchers leading clients out of the information darkness and into the light.

Hey! This is going to be fun!!

— bq


Barbara Quint's e-mail address is bquint@mindspring.com.
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