Findability, The Google Economy, and Libraries

Search Help.Peter Morville, author of Ambient Findability, stirred up the web4lib email list with a message about Authority and Findability. His message is about how services like Wikipedia and Google are changing our global information architecture and the meaning of “authority.”

The reaction was quick, and largely critical, but good argument tests our thinking and weeds the gardens of our mind. Argument is good. Here’s my side.

It’s important that we understand how modern search engines work. On the web, each link is a citation, and citation analysis is an important component among the many algorithms used to rank search results. Highly ranked content appears at the top because it is frequently cited (linked). This is obvious to many, but what is harder to fathom is that we (those who publish web content, anyway), not the search engines are responsible for identifying value on the web. Each link is a value statement about the resource we link to.

Think about that in the context of this comment:

Just because a document is findable, this does not mean that its contents are *better* or more truthful than a document that is not findable.

My point is that findability is in fact a measure of value. A perhaps incomplete and indirect measure, but one that has shown a remarkable ability to deliver valuable and useful information on demand.

Unfortunately, not all content is available online, and not all online content is linkable. Sadly, many web OPAC pages are not linkable, as is true of most every A&I and full-text database (or the content is linkable but inaccessible behind an authwall).

So now this quote:

As librarians, we are supposed to be experts on helping people find and retrieve quality information.

And I have to follow this with the following question: How better to help our patrons find high quality, accurate, and authoritative information than to take advantage of the search engines that already answer hundreds of millions of questions each day?

As stewards of knowledge, we need to understand the Google Economy. We need to build applications that embrace it. We need to invest the value that librarians bring to the search for knowledge in our online services.

Feh, libraries are full of people smarter than me. Hopefully they’ll forgive me for speaking out of turn.