Academic Librarians & The Google Effect

I am often asked "Now that everything is online why do we need librarians?" It's a question that I would have likely considered myself before I became a librarian. And it's a tough question because it implies that the very nature of your work - the work that you know to be more important than ever in a time of ubiquitous online access - is not necessary anymore. I'd like to think that this way of thinking, that libraries and librarians are no longer necessary, is more of the exception than the rule, but I'm not so sure.

Joshua Kim on InsideHigherEd did a great job of articulating the value of librarians in the Google age. He was recently asked "When it is time to do research on educational technology do you start with your favorite search engine or do you invest time delving into your academic library's education research databases?"

It's a fallacy that librarians expect people to start with the research in the library's database. We all know that most people will start their research where they feel comfortable - generally with their favorite search engine. We know this because librarians often do the same thing.

But as Kim notes, the appearance of ubiquitous information - the Google effect - has served to increase the the professional value of my relationship with academic librarians. The reason for this conclusion about the importance of the value of these relationships can be found in what Google can’t do - and in what academic librarians do beautifully. What I can’t do with Google is have a conversation.  I can’t discover what I don’t know when interacting with Google. I can’t evolve my understanding in dialogue with Google. From Google I can get facts, data, and information - but I can’t contextualize that information within the problem that I am trying to solve.  Nor can that information be placed within the cultural and organizational context in which I’m trying to utilize that information to answer a question or tackle a challenge.

And I use this way of thinking when I teach my students legal research. I understand that they will use Google, but I want them to also be able to contextualize the information that they find. I teach them a 4-step legal research strategy that starts with a preliminary analysis that includes planning their research and looking in secondary sources to find an overview of the law. After I've talked about the reputable secondary sources available through library subscriptions, I have a frank discussion with them about using Google to find information. I then have a discussion with the students about what they might find on Google and how that information fits into the 4-step process.

In the InsideHigherEd article, Kim goes on to discuss the other benefits of working with his academic-librarian colleagues. My librarian colleagues bring a deep level of expertise to these conversations that is different from other folks in my network. This expertise may be around information science, or open access and open resources, or how a new discipline (such as the digital humanities) is forming.  This expertise may be subject matter related.  This expertise may have to do with how physical and digital spaces change, merge and interact. Almost always, I learn from my librarian colleagues in our conversations new things about how learning and knowledge production are changing, and how we can be most effective in an environment of ever-increasing demands and ever-shrinking resources, time, and attention.

Lastly, Kim asks if there Is a shared understanding across higher ed that Google is in reality the best friend of the profession of academic librarianship - as ubiquitous information makes contextualized knowledge and ongoing collaborations ever more essential as drivers of both individual productivity and institutional quality?

I, for one, certainly hope so.


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