Is That All?

You know an Internet trend has peaked when it's written up in the New York Times. The Times published a column in late June titled "Is Google God?", in which a vice-president of a wireless services provider was quoted as saying, "If I can operate Google, I can find anything." When I read that, I knew it was all over, and I would have to start looking for my new best friend in the search engine arena. Perhaps that handsome-looking man on the WiseNut page? The smiling genie on Kartoo? The chameleon-like HotBot, that lets me redecorate every few days? So many suitors, so little time…

But back to Google for a moment. Its success, at least in terms of its acceptance—okay, ubiquity—in the marketplace, is due to the fact that it produces relevant results to a query. I type in Sydney tourist and the magic black box assumes that I am talking about Sydney, Australia and that I want tourist-related information. Sure enough, the first few sites Google returns to me are the Sydney Tourist Guide, a visitor's guide developed by the city of Sydney, and the VirtualTourist page on Sydney.

Compare the results of typing Sydney tourist into Google with walking up to a librarian at a reference desk, looking her in the eye, and saying, "Sydney tourist." How do you think she would respond? At the least, I would expect her to ask if you were planning on traveling to Australia, or if you wanted help with identifying tour packages or cheap air fares, if you wanted pictures of Sydney tourist sites, or even if your name was Sydney and you wanted to talk to someone about your last vacation. She would see the range of information that might be useful, and would try to help you articulate exactly what you are looking for and what would answer your question.

Google, on the other hand, has taught us that it is no longer necessary to go through the effort of defining our information need. We just put a word or two into the search box and let a search engine disambiguate the query and provide an answer. We have learned to look through some possible results, and hope that we recognize the "right" site from within the first page or two of results. We have given up on the need to think through the reason for our query, or to clearly articulate the gap in our information; instead, like Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart famously said about pornography, we may not be able to define what we're looking for, but we'll know it when we see it.

What this really means is that there is even more of a need for info pros to raise the information expectations of their clients and patrons. We need to give them the training and skills to think through what they already know, what gaps they have, what kinds of information—and even what media—they need, and then to articulate their information need in a way that makes sense to a search engine.

When I finally take my place as the Internet Czarina (and I just know that day will come) perhaps I will incorporate a pop-up box into Google. When the Google search results page is displayed, I would like people to see a virtual info pro asking them some probing questions about their last search. "Did you find what you were looking for? Are you sure? Are these the best sites to answer your question? Can you tell which of these sites are paid listings? Did you know that you're missing all the content on the invisible Web? Did you consider searching weblogs or audio files? How about the value-added online services?"

Okay, so maybe this would not fit within a discrete pop-up box. There is a lot that goes into reference librarians' thought processes when they interview their clients and determine which information sources would best meet those clients' information needs. And much as we info pros default to Google as our first search tool, we also need to encourage a less complacent attitude among our clients toward search engines. We need to raise their awareness of all the content that isn't indexed by search engines, and the sources that simply do not lend themselves to a broad search query.

In fact, one of the most difficult aspects of providing information services to our clients or patrons is keeping in mind that most people have a relatively constrained view of the information universe. They don't see what is hidden in online catalogs, or in streaming media, or buried in a database, or stored within an organization. Our job as consciousness-raising info pros is to out-Google Google: to make available, and accessible, the range of information beyond what Google can find. Some day, people will stop saying they have "Googled" a subject and will instead refer to having "librarianed" it. And then I will watch for the inevitable New York Times article, "Are Librarians God?"