26 April 2008

Getting it right away, getting it right

The Guardian recently wrote about a study titled Information Behaviour of the Researcher of the Future, published in January 2008. The report was written Dr. Ian Rowlands and colleagues at the Centre for Information Behaviour and the Evaluation of Research. They must have been up all night coming up with a name that fit the acronym CIBER.
The study was commissioned by the British Library and the Joint Information Systems Committee, so it's no shock that the report emphasizes what libraries must do to ensure their survival in the face of other media competing for the researcher of the future's dwindling attention span. The report's authors display admirable reserve (they're British, after all), but they tip their hand on the title page, with a big photo of a child staring at a computer screen with nostrils flared, teeth bared, and for good measure, mad-scientist hair.
Research libraries rightly fear becoming obsolete if search engines and online information resources outperform them at their own job. The report defends the library by suggesting that readers, in their desire to get information right away, often fail to get it right.
It argues first that online researchers find good information, but they don't read it. "Around 60 per cent of e-journal users view no more than three pages and a majority (up to 65 per cent) never return. . . . The average times that users spend on e-book and ejournal sites are very short: typically four and eight minutes respectively. . . . users `power browse’ horizontally through titles, contents pages and abstracts going for quick wins." I admit I'm busted, I didn't read every word of the report. But I was power browsing in college back in the 20th Century. Surely it's no surprise to Dr. Rowlands et al. that researchers often stop reading after they've found the information they need, even when they're using hard-copy sources.
Expanding on the subject of what we don't read, the report laments the tendency of academics to "squirrel away content in the form of downloads [but] there is no evidence as to the extent to which these downloads are actually read." This is another bad habit that folks had centuries before the Internet made it easy and cheap. Most book-filled homes and offices contain scores of unread or partially-read volumes.
The second argument the report advances is that content found online is less reliable than that found in libraries, or that users can't tell the difference. "Users assess authority and trust for themselves in a matter of seconds by dipping and cross-checking across different sites and by relying on favoured brands (e.g. Google)." Traditional scholarship has always been backed by the guarantee of peer reviews--"peer" in this case being the author's peer, not the reader's. Readers of the Google generation are too quick to trust the imprimatur of their own peers, but libraries won't lure researchers back into the stacks by impugning all web content. In academic and professional circles, the web is evolving its own equivalent of peer review, and intelligent readers quickly learn to recognize the writers with sound ideas, and to ignore the quacks and hacks.
The CIBER team sees a tidal wave of suspect information threatening to drown the libraries, so they throw them an anvil. "Libraries are handicapped here by a lack of brand . . . Publishers are better able to offer something here with their strong commercial and academic brands and their rapidly expanding ‘walled garden’ information products, and strategic partnerships should be considered." The publishers can't stop this particular deluge; they're already in it far over their heads. And anyway, they've already created a brand--books--that Google regards as the gold standard for "highest-quality knowledge," as Sergey Brin said last year in a New Yorker interview.
Google lets readers get information right away. Often they get it right, too. But Google has no interest in preserving information for readers of the 22nd or 23rd Centuries. No business can wait 200 years to see a return on its investment. That's why libraries won't, and mustn't, become obsolete. Their stakeholders are not just the power-browsing scholars of the present, but those of the future. Nobody finds current information better than Google. But someday Google will be just a footnote in a volume of history, and it won't even be that unless someone is preserving volumes of history. Nobody does that better than the British Library.

1 comment:

Lakshmi said...

I think this conflict is simpler than you are letting on; what is at stake is mass privatization, not mass digitization. The medium of the information isn't really an issue, as you point out; it's perfectly possible to spend time in library skimming bibliographies and never looking at any body content. (Been there, done that, got the degree.) The problem is that Google is one company that exists for shareholder profits (occasional cool initiatives aside). What you rightly point out is the need for publicly available repositories. I, for one am optimistic. There is no reason to think that public and private initiatives can't co-exist (the British Museum and the Encyclopedia Britannica spring to mind, or the Bodleian library and Blackwell's Bookshop.

Thanks for posting this.