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Google Scholar

I tell you, it’s been quite a week. I haven’t felt so much in the presence of major change since the day back in 1993, was it, that I installed Mosaic and got Trumpet Winsock working, and for the first time saw NASA images on my computer.

First last Friday I was FRBR-ized, then Yahoo and OCLC announced their fun-kay toolbar, and now Google has debuted Google Scholar, which is what access to value-added databases would look like in Libraryland if we had even an iota of a clue about marketing and usability.

On Web4Lib, a gent named Mark Ludwig mused, “Imagine if Google came up with a better overall funding model than hundreds of libraries paying a mix of agregators who pay a mix of publishers, redundantly. It isn’t hard to imagine scenarios that might easily overcome our jerry-rigged method of e-resource brokering.”

Mark’s on the mark. It’s not just about Google being a huge, well-funded company with the kind of resources we in Libraryland will never have. LibraryLand is a feudal universe balkanized by both type of institution and geopolitical boundaries. We suck at marketing, and (ferbish proselytizing again) we suck at presenting content the way people wanna and SHOULD see it, the way content is meant to be experienced. (I heard a librarian–who had never seen a FRBR display–refer to FRBR as “dumbing down” the catalog, and to borrow a phrase from Capote, I felt “bubbles in my blood.” We’re the dummies, for stupidly reiterating the card catalog in an online interface and then admiring our own damn stupidity.)

Google, on the other hand, is an excellent example of the unified field theory. Not to mention what a few bucks in the pocket can do. They are certainly not organizing Committees and Task Forces to present Resolutions. Google is just doing it. You can protest that it’s not original, that it’s not well-implemented, that we’ve done better all along. It doesn’t matter, because we don’t have a cluebird from hell what we’re doing, so we are unable to explain to people that the same articles they are buying through Google Scholar are available for “free,” as we refer to tax-supported resources, through their library Web pages. And who can blame our users, when we present balkanized and badly-configured pots of content here and there, and then preen that we did not “dumb down” the interface to the point where anyone could actually use it?

For that matter, it may well be that many communities offer a plethora of value-added content to their users, but for over three years, since I left a library in upstate New York that offered a respectable collection of databases, I’ve been in the wilderness. Everyone thinks California is the be-all end-all of technology, but it isn’t so. Access to scholarly content is just part of the problem, but it’s one I feel deeply. Until I began a second master’s last June, and therefore acquired access to the dazzling online collection of the University of San Francisco, I had access to almost nothing in the way of anything approaching scholarly content. I seriously considered a shift to academic librarianship because I knew I would be able to get to the materials I needed to do the kind of personal writing I wanted to do. I may have an articulated need, but Google has poked around and found a more inchoate but nonetheless real desire for scholarly information.

It is pointless to protest that what Google is doing is not new. If no one knows it exists, or if not enough people have access to it, the availability is “new” enough. You might sniff when Barnes and Noble builds a bookstore in your neighborhood, but if you didn’t have a bookstore, they have added something indeed. The superstores do kill the smaller stores, which in the case of small-town purveyors, means us, unfortunately. But information flows down the path of least resistance. If it’s plentiful and easy to get to and someone reminds me it exists, it is more likely to be used than something hidden on someone’s poorly-designed Web page labeled “Bibliographic Databases.”

It’s worth asking if we in Libraryland should hitch a star to Google Scholar. On the terrific blog It’s All Good (an informal blog contributed to by folks at the Big O), Alane suggests that this is the End Of The World As We Know It, and adds that she feels fine. (I wrote the above reference to unified field theory before reading her comment about the “the big bang,” and am grinning.) I would feel fine if I felt that we were going to end up on the new world, but I worry we’ll be left behind. We can and should look at ways that Google Scholar could help libraries crawl out of the primordial soup and begin to develop lungs before we join the ranks of the brachiopods and the dodo birds.

My caution: if Google becomes the Walmart of value-added content, then it may also become the gatekeeper–like Walmart, deciding what cannot be aggregated. But that is a petard we have hoisted ourselves onto by being too slow, too balkanized, and too unwilling to look in the mirror.

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