Alternative to Google (Chronicle of Higher Education)

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From: Alev Akman (
Date: Wed Feb 18 2004 - 09:37:18 PST

Date: Wed, 18 Feb 2004 09:37:18 -0800
From: Alev Akman <>
Subject: Alternative to Google (Chronicle of Higher Education)
Message-id: <>

Following the Washington Post article, maybe this would be a good point of view!

Alev Akman, MLIS
Library Coordinator
Viticulture & Enology Research Center
2360 E. Barstow Ave. M/S VR89
Fresno CA 93740-8003
phone (559)278-5388
fax (559)278-4795

The Chronicle of Higher Education 
From the issue dated February 20, 2004


The Infodiet: How Libraries Can Offer an Appetizing Alternative to Google


Google has become the symbol of competition to the academic library. In 2003 a torrent of articles in the popular press sang the praises of Google while heralding the demise of libraries or, worse, ignoring libraries and librarians -- the original search engines. Such articles make academic librarians wince, especially with the usual quotes from students along the lines of, "Oh, our campus has a library? I didn't know that, but now that you mention it, why would I go there?"

Academic librarians are stymied by their inability to get students to use the libraries' high-quality subscription databases. We find ourselves having to choose between succumbing to the lure of Google-ized database interfaces and vehemently resisting them.

The academic library has clearly lost its monopoly as the campus information gateway, but we can return it to its proper place of pre-eminence at the information smorgasbord. Think of the library as the carving station that's been abandoned while the diners line up for greasy burgers and fries. Too many students are bringing a "supersize it" mentality to research, in effect asking librarians, "Can you Google-ize that for me?" The library's complex information environment caters poorly to those who want fast, easy access to unlimited, full-text content using interfaces that require no critical thought or evaluation. Our electronic resources have been designed instead to deliver precise responses to carefully formulated queries. Users who take the trouble at the outset to devise an appropriate search strategy have to spend far less time browsing through irrelevant results.

James Morris, dean of the School of Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon University, has coined the term "infobesity," which nicely describes the outcome of Google-izing research: a junk-information diet, consisting of overwhelming amounts of low-quality material that is hard to digest and leads to research papers of equally low quality. The cure for infobesity may be commercially produced databases, called aggregators. Produced by companies like ProQuest and Gale, the databases use conventional features like Boolean searching but also offer specialized vocabularies and other features that give better results to searchers willing to learn how to use them. With practice, such databases -- to which most libraries already subscribe -- effectively retrieve small, precisely targeted portions of "nutritious" information.

The challenge is getting students to move from infobesity to infodieting. When confronted with aggregator databases and online library catalogs, students' eyes glaze over, not unlike those of a fast-food supersizer confronted with a nice, healthy salad plate. "Can't this be more like Google?" students ask. At one time I was convinced that any librarian would reply in the negative, but now I'm not so sure. Library professionals and the companies that produce the databases appear to be contemplating how, indeed, we can be more like Google.

Indeed, why shouldn't we Google-ize our online library catalogs and databases? If students find our electronic information resources confusing and difficult to use, especially because virtually every library system has a different interface, isn't it more sensible to just make everything like Google? Perhaps. But we need to encourage our users to migrate from low-quality Web sites to the high-quality information we can provide. The trick is making the salad smell and taste like fast food, so they'll eat it.

A diehard, traditionalist librarian or faculty member might argue that research isn't supposed to be convenient or easy. Research is a process of discovery in which we mine new information, search through it, and ultimately discover the few gems we need to produce a well-written paper. Research may involve hard work, but isn't a college education supposed to present challenges like that?

Not everyone thinks so. The first time I encountered the Google-ization argument was in an article called "Facing the Competition," in the December 2002 issue of College & Research Libraries News. The author, Virginia Massey-Burzio, accurately notes that students in general "have little patience for dealing with complex online library catalogs, searching the stacks, or standing in line to photocopy." Many libraries are trying to get students to change their ways through something called the information-literacy initiative, which means teaching students how to use and evaluate both print and electronic sources of information. But Massey-Burzio, head of the department of research services and collections at the Johns Hopkins University's library, writes that "our users shouldn't have to deal with that complexity." Instead, she suggests, libraries might "emulate popular Web search engines."

When I first read the article, I disagreed with what she suggested. But she and the other proponents of Google-ization are raising valid questions about our current ability to provide students with high-quality information.

Academic librarians are not the only people responsible for reversing students' declining research abilities; database producers and faculty members must work with us to solve the problem. Together we must begin by developing search systems and interfaces that provide an appropriate balance between the quality and sophistication of library catalogs and good aggregator databases, on the one hand, and the convenience and ease of Google-like search engines, on the other. For some time now, the largest producers of databases have focused more on competing with each other for library business than on designing interfaces that students can navigate on their own. And because the producers seem to think that a librarian cares most about the number of full-text journals a database contains, their databases are now so loaded down with journals of questionable value that searches often yield results that are not much better than Google's -- but almost equally addictive to students, who get lots of full-text articles fast without having to do much thinking. In their current state, the aggregators are part of the infobesity problem, not part of its solution.

Some recent developments suggest that producers have heard librarians' calls for improvement and are ready to try new ideas. ProQuest unveiled a new interface in July. Among its many enhancements, the interface makes specialized search terms more transparent to students, and thus easier to use.

Another interesting experiment is the "RedLightGreen" project, recently made public by RLG, a nonprofit group of more than 160 universities, national libraries, archives, historical societies, and other institutions. That interface presents users with a single search box, similar to Google's. But the initial-results screen includes a list of books and suggests other search terms from the database's subject vocabulary that, if selected, could lead to more-relevant material. RedLightGreen ranks books and other material according to relevance and to how many libraries own the material, thus combining the use of a subject vocabulary with a Google-like popularity measure.

Both RedLightGreen and ProQuest now allow users to put information about the material they find on the interfaces into any of several standard citation formats. Such added-value features give students additional reasons to use those systems instead of more-generic search engines. That's exactly what the producers of aggregators need to be doing: not dumbing down their systems, but using sophisticated software to produce high-quality results for searchers who aren't database experts.

Faculty members, too, must be involved in improving students' information literacy. Academic librarians typically lack the power and influence to make students change their research behavior: Students think they already know how to find information quickly and efficiently, and they resist instruction in doing research that seems to be less an integral part of the curriculum than an awkward appendage to it. Only faculty members can develop assignments that will force students to use information sources beyond Google. For instance, instead of simply asking students to write a 10-page paper, a professor can require students to use resources like the library catalog or a relevant database to find information. Students should be told to include in their papers the search strategies they used and how they decided what information to include and what to discard.

Of course, some professors themselves may be unfamiliar with the high-quality library databases that their students should be using, or they may be reluctant to collaborate with librarians on research assignments, for fear of losing control of the assignments or their workload. Librarians should present faculty members with compelling evidence that the quality of student research is declining, and offer to help them learn about research databases and to collaborate in creating assignments. Administrators can help by formally supporting information-literacy initiatives and tying them to the student-learning outcomes required by accrediting agencies. Naturally, librarians must continue to remind professors and administrators that no Internet search engine can match the campus library for its array of services and its curriculum-based collection.

Working together, librarians, professors, and developers can show students that research, like reading and classroom discussions, requires careful reflection. Supersized search engines that imitate Google, producing piles of full-text articles, may initially be as satisfying as a candy bar. But empty calories -- or citations -- are not what the educated consumer wants.

Steven J. Bell is director of the library at Philadelphia University.
Section: The Chronicle Review
Volume 50, Issue 24, Page B15

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