Google and the Librarians

Google Librarian Central was launched on 17th January (Announcing the Librarian Central Blog), and has caused a small amount of controversy already. Following on from the Google Librarian Newsletter, which first started in December 2005, the new blog version is a welcome improvement to this (particularly since my firm’s firewall blocked me from the sign-up page for the old Newsletter!).

The blog came about after their request for suggestions on how to improve the Google Librarian Newsletter resulted in two common requests: “make it a blog” and “give us more current information”. The blog page contains the blog, access to the archive of the newsletters, some teaching tools (search tips etc), a ‘Your Stories’ page and videos – all very exciting. There are also links to a (very select) few librarian blogs and lots of Google blogs.

One of the first complaints was that the Google Librarian Central blog did not allow people to leave comments. On 23rd January they showed they were listening (apparently not only to emails but to “comments around the blogosphere”) by enabling comments ( Thanks for the Feedback). Google did explain that “Historically we’ve not featured them on any of the Google blogs simply because we want to be responsive to comments and questions, and typically all of our blog efforts are managed by very small teams with other responsibilities.” So all praise to Google for paying attention to what people actually wanted. Hopefully they will continue to do so on other points.

Another complaint made is that the GLC is very American-centric. Claiming that “we’ll do our best to provide information and materials relevant to as many of you as we can” is all very well, but it seems they mean as many of you who are in the US. The conferences they mention attending are all American (ALA Midwinter, AASL). Phil Bradley says “perhaps it’s because I’m from Britain, but I’m a little bit touchy about this” – I entirely agree with him – Google is very focussed on America (fair enough, I suppose, since they are based there), but if they are to appeal to the whole community of Librarians – including those in other countries, then they should make more of an effort to include resources, information, etc that is relevant to those outside the US (and not just the UK, though I admit that is what I am mostly interested in). As Phil points out – the “Librarian quiz starts by asking ‘What does Google US Government Search let you do?’” – if you’re not in the US you’re probably not going to know (or indeed care). Google has created search pages for different countries – I use, not – and while it would be ridiculous to expect them to create different Google Librarian Central blogs/pages for each country, it would be nice for them to make more of an acknowledgement that there may be librarians in these other countries.

Finally, as Vancouver Law Librarian, Phil Bradley, Steven Cohen, and others have pointed out, Google are completely useless at marketing themselves to Librarians. Their first mistake was to use the image of an old book on the GLC page. This was then changed (following complaints) to a picture of a library building. Which is fine, insofar as it goes, except that it displays a generally traditional view of libraries – that they are about books and buildings, and are physical things. This is an odd view for an entity like Google, with its enthusiasm for putting books online, to hold -(especially since they themselves have described librarians as a “hyper-communicative, quick-to-share-information community”) – libraries are much more than just the physical, and many librarians do not view themselves or their workplaces in this way – many librarians are not called ‘librarians’, many do not work in ‘libraries’ (and I’m really, really not getting into all of that here). Of course, it could be argued that Google’s view of us is in fact our own fault. The survey they carried out apparently told Google “where you work: mainly in university and school libraries, followed closely by public and special libraries” – I assume they sent the survey out to those subscribed to the newsletter – as I managed to entirely miss it.
It remains to be seen how successful the Google Librarian Central will be – how useful – but it is worth noting that it already has 453 subscribers on Bloglines (yes, including myself – I am hopeful about the blog, and will be keeping up to date with it). The GLC is no more US-centric than the Google Librarian Newsletter was – it just seems that more people are complaining about it – which probably means that more people are aware of it – and care about it. Surely a good thing.

What Google need to do is realise that there are librarians who aren’t in the US, that not all librarians work in public or academic libraries, and that there is much more to library and information work than the traditional view.

*Update: Following the latest blog from GLC, Phil Bradley has responded to their continuing US-centric approach with a wonderfully scathing comment, which he reprints in his blog: “Google Librarian Central: Search Tip: Specialized Searches”. Go Phil!

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