Google vs libraries? Do we face an information dream or nightmare?


sunset_directions (photo by saavem)

I was an early adapter to the Internet.  I was dialling up to Bulletin Boards and sending off for underground magazines on floppy disc before the internet as we know it was around.  And in the infancy of ‘the Web’, when it meant little more than something spiders created, I was telling everyone at school how amazing the Internet was.  You could chat to people around the world, find information on your favourite band, get detailed information to help with homework, look up the most amazing jokes, and a million other things!

None of my friends really cared at the time.  But in a flash, the Internet was THE big thing.  Fast forward to today and now it’s simply the norm.  We take it for granted, despite its relative newness.

As we have speedily adapted to this new way of life, has the internet replaced more traditional sources in terms of ease and accuracy?  The 5th June edition of Times Higher Education discussed ‘the Google generation’, wondering if we have become too dependent (and Google-eyed) on the online search beast.  Has the ease of finding information led to less critical thought and innovation, at a time when you’d rather expect the free flow of data to open up new possibilities?

I recently found a fantastic article from the site Publishing 2.0:

What newspapers still don’t understand about the web

After reading, I thought it’s no wonder most of us use Google as the first (and often only) port of call for information.

And in terms of academic research, going as far as Google Scholar (still Google!) and Wikipedia isn’t exactly breaking out into a secret world of exclusive information.

Google clearly does have a huge scope.  You’d be mad not to use it.  I do so frequently on a daily basis.

The problem is when we rely almost solely on just one resource.

Google may bring together a large number of resources, but that misses the point.  Google is still a single entity when you use it as a service for research.  Despite its huge scope, it doesn’t handle all information.  For specialist research purposes, Google is a help, but only when used as part of the research process.

I hear a lot of complaints that students of today are less likely to work independently and need to have their hand held at all times.  But this is a complete contradiction.  In many cases, students are acting independently and using what they know.  This knowledge is generally making use of the Internet and, more specifically, Google.  Yes, there are still trips to the library, but while the lives of students are changing, many aspects of libraries have remained static.

Books (photo by ijsendoorn)

Books (photo by ijsendoorn)

That’s not to say that the overall role of the library has changed.  But the needs of students have.  This, in turn, means that libraries need to adapt their approach; something that may not be possible across the UK due to funding issues and lack of support.  However, the Times Higher Education mentions the “role of library staff in developing students’ information skills”.  In my mind, this is a crucial point, and one that doesn’t need vast funding to make good.

That said, even with a dedicated library staff, they still need to be approached by students if they are to assist.  Some students simply won’t come forward.  But I’m sure those of you reading this would love to have the help.  It’s just that you might not be aware how that help can be given, or the advantages of asking for that help.

The communication difficulty is, therefore, an issue that needs addressing before libraries can evolve to meet the needs of students.

The Times Higher Education report goes on to suggest that ‘power browsing’ and flicking quickly through digital information may be true for all academics, not just students.  However, academics have the advantage of knowing much of the ideas within the literature already, which suggests they may be in a better position to take the snippets of new information on board.

Google searches can return thousands, if not millions, of documents.  We’re clearly not going to check through all those results.  These searches also rely on your search term being a good one, as well as focusing on a topic that doesn’t cause controversy and false facts on the Web.  To be certain of what we read online isn’t easy unless the source can be properly verified or automatically trusted.  Even then it can be confusing.

A few months ago, I thought a change may be creeping through.  I was going to post about a resource that sounded amazing…You can fire up your web browser and connect directly to a librarian at a public library in the UK (or when out of hours, the US) who will assist with all your questions.  It sounded like a dream come true…personal help getting students the information they need.

Unfortunately, after I tested it, I found that the librarians were using Google as their main resource, so I decided not to mention the service.

I asked questions on university structures, qualifications, and various issues surrounding uni students.  Prior to asking these questions, I did some basic searching on Google.

To my surprise and disappointment, the librarians answered my questions by sending me to the very sites I had found in my brief Google search.

Ever the optimist, I asked for further information on some questions, mainly where an answer was not conclusive.  The responses were still vague.  At no point did I come away with any additional information or answers, other than a couple of new websites that contained no further useful detail.  On one occasion, I was told that no information relating to my query would be available, something I later found to be untrue.

I was disappointed that the service fell down on anything other than fairly simple requests.  While the staff were extremely friendly and interested in my questions, it was disappointing to be left without the information I was seeking.

This service used public libraries, NOT academic libraries.  But according to June’s CILIP (Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals) Update, university libraries haven’t fared too well recently either.  Apparently, 20 university libraries were phoned by a ‘student’ with various questions.  Not one library got all the questions right, and only 4 of about 80 questions were answered via a book.  The main sources of information given were through Google and Wikipedia; the very sources questioned by academics in terms of research.

It was argued that a university library is geared toward pointing students in the right direction, rather than giving direct answers.  Still, it’s worrying to see a trend of using Google and Wikipedia to get answers.

In an online piece for the Times Higher Education, Tara Brabazon sums up the difficulty that these examples outline:

“We have accepted the metaphor of the internet being a library for a decade.  It was always an odd and incorrect affiliation, but we are now seeing the consequences of this metaphoric misalignment.  If the internet is a library, then librarians are redundant.”

So, have libraries been given such a bad name that their use has been discarded?  At the very least, are libraries being ignored as true institutions of information?  Are the librarians themselves starting to give in to the internet?

While I understand that Higher Education in the UK is an ever-changing concept, I am concerned that libraries haven’t been given the chance to evolve.  I don’t see this as the fault of librarians or students and, thus, it can only be a negative result for future students, as well as those who study today.  From the website comments found in response to the Times Higher Education’s writing, there appears to be frustration among academic librarians too.

Where should students go for their reading, learning, research, understanding, recreation, development?  As far as I’m concerned, they should go wherever possible.

The internet certainly hasn’t replaced the library.  That’s like suggesting airbags have replaced the brakes in cars.  Not only are airbags and brakes unrelated entities, but airbags are a help for keeping drivers and their passengers safe, not an alternative.

A canny student will use all available means to access information and find the best quality sources.  The internet complements the library and vice versa.  Any source of information can complement another source.  It’s not a competition!

In my next post, I’ll give you a few pointers and suggestions for getting the best out of your research, both in libraries and via the Web.

info (photo by svilen001)

info (photo by svilen001)


  1. Excellent Post and Topic!

    As a student, I still use the Library. I love it! Even if I am not working on a specific research project I go to the library and browse different sections, picking up books here and there.

    I honestly believe that the internet is still a small child. We have no clue how it is going to grow and mature, but it is growing. And the best thing we can do is make sure it has proper development/parenting for it to become something that is really good.

    Libraries are not viewed as important to most students. When I visit my campus library there is absolutely no one browsing the library books, but everyone is on the internet.

    Unfortunately most students are looking at Facebook or Myspace. Not researching.

    Google does have negative implications concerning Grade Inflation. Instead of studying and understanding topics, it is very easy to google answers right before a test, cram the information, and pass with flying colors.

    I hope we discover a way to use the internet and libraries together. I am a huge fan of the internet and the good things that come with it.

    Great Post. I wish more people would discuss this, because this is a discussion that needs to happen, along with grade inflation.

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