Friday, May 13, 2011


In the 1990's I wrote often about information dystopias. In 1994 I said:

It's clear to me that the information highway isn't much about information. It's about trying to find a new basis for our economy. I'm pretty sure I'm not going to like the way information is treated in that economy. We know what kind of information sells, and what doesn't.

In 1995 I painted a surprisingly accurate picture of 2015 that included:
Big boys, like Disney and Time/Warner/Turner put out snippets of their films and have enticed viewers to upgrade their connection to digital movie quality. News programs have truly found their place on the Net, offering up-to-the second views of events happening all over the world, perfectly selected for your interests....Online shopping allows 3-D views of products and virtual walk-throughs of vacation paradises.

If there were a stock market for cynical investments, I'd be sitting pretty right now. But wait... there's more! Because there's always a future, and therefore more dystopia to predict.

My latest is concern is about searching and finding. And of course that means that I am concerned about Google, but this is in a new context. I have spent the last five years trying to convince libraries that we need to be of the web -- not only on the web but truly web resources. I strongly believe this is the only possible way to keep libraries relevant to new generations of information seekers. This has been interpreted by many as a digitization project that will result in getting the stuff of libraries (books mainly) onto the web, and getting the metadata about that stuff out of library catalogs and onto the web. Hathitrust, for example, is a massive undertaking that will store and preserve huge amounts of digitized books. The Digital Public Library of America (DPLA), just in its early planning stages today, wants to make all books available to everyone for "free."

All of these are highly commendable projects, but there is a reality that we don't seem to be have embraced, and that is that searching and finding are as important to the information seeking process as the actual underlying materials. As we can easily see with Google, the search engine is the gate-keeper to content. If content cannot be found then it does not exist. And determining what content will be accessed is real power in the information cloud. [cf. Siva Vaidhyanathan, Googlization of Everything.]

There is a danger that when this mass of library materials becomes of the web that we could entirely lose control of its discovery. But it isn't just a question of library materials, this is true for the entire linked data cloud: who will create the search engine that makes all of that data findable? With its purchase of, it is clear that Google has at least an eye on LD space. And of course Google has the money, the servers, the technology to do this. We know, however, from our experience with the current Google search engine that the application of Google's values to search produces a particular result. We also know that Google's main business model is based on making a connection between searchers and advertisers. [cf. Ken Auletta, Googled] .

It's not enough for libraries to gather, store and preserve huge masses of information resources. We have to be actively engaged with users and potential users, and that engagement includes providing ways for them to find and to use the resources libraries have. We must provide the entry point that brings users to information materials without that access being mediated through a commercial revenue model. So for every HathiTrust or DPLA that focuses on the resources we need a related project -- equally well-funded -- that focuses on users and access. Not just creating a traditional library-type catalog but providing a whole host of services that will help uses find and explore the digital library. This interface needs to be part search engine, part individual work space, and part social networking. Users should be able to do their research, store their personal library (getting into Memex territory here), share their work with others, engage in conversations, and perhaps even manage complex research projects. It could be like a combination of Zotero, VIVO, Zoho, Yahoo pipes, Dabble, and MIT's OpenCourseWare.

Really, if we don't do this, the future of libraries and research will be decided by Google. There, I said it.


Jean Armour Polly said...

Amen, sister.

Anonymous said...

For more reasons why we need libraries rather than leaving the Googles of the world as the gatekeepers, see

The Carter Barry Palfrey Family said...

Thanks, Karen, for this great post. Speaking for the Digital Public Library of America's steering committee: we hear your suggestion. Now, speaking for myself only, I think the idea for the DPLA is that it will ideally not just be a digitization project, but that it will have likely 5 components: 1) digitized content; 2) open code (including search and discovery interfaces); 3) open metadata; 4) tools and services for public libraries and otherwise; and 5) an active community, in the spirit of the Wikipedia and open source development community. We'd love your active help in thinking through the implications of your suggestions in the context of the DPLA.

John Palfrey

Karen Coyle said...

John, thanks. I hope you didn't get the impression that I was targeting DPLA with my comments... but I'm glad my post got your attention. I do want to do what I can for the DPLA project, time permitting. And I am very glad to see that many of the "sprints" are user-focused. Perhaps DPLA can consciously position itself as a project where experimentation can take place. The big question though is funding that work (which is always harder than it seems it should be).

the.effing.librarian said...

considering there is no single unified public library on the web or off, something new has to happen. google works. so libraries will cut deals with google to have their real resources digitized and to have their digital resources crawled, indexed and monetized. so if *anyone* can prove to do these things that we want, there would be a great place to start. I don't know what a digital public library should look like, but it could be google-ish so long as the monetizing part kicks back to the public side. otherwise, each library might just give up their resources to the google itself one at a time until there is nothing public left to preserve. (and again, I'm glad someone confirmed the "bubble" from a previous comment because I wrote about that 2 years ago on my blog, but couldn't get anyone to help me confirm it, as I was already in the bubble myself.) so we need to get behind something, and if the dpla can do it first, then I would throw in my support (such as it is). cheers

Jean Costello said...

Really perceptive post, Karen! You hit the nail on the head with "It's not enough for libraries to gather, store and preserve huge masses of information resources. We have to be actively engaged with users and potential users, and that engagement includes providing ways for them to find and to use [I'd say information resources here, rather than 'the resources libraries have']. We must provide the entry point that brings users to information materials without that access being mediated through a commercial revenue model." A few things are needed to do this effectively, I think.

1. Moving beyond ownership toward high-quality virtual curation and pathfinding as an organizing principle. Ownership and preservation have become much less important than when our library systems were established in this country, and with the explosion of accessible, low-cost information sources, even the greatest library collection will be deemed inadequate by users. The challenge before us it so develop new knowledge-seeking-and-making systems - and it's one for which librarians are very well-suited. Search algorithms and metadata are only part of the solution. Human knowledge disciplines and the application of the right core values (such as equal access, authoritative sources, etc.) are key components, and ones we cannot rely on commercial firms to provide.

2. Developing a national library organization that can deliver this value. It cannot be done with our current system of independent or loosely confederated systems across the country that spend most of their resources duplicating services and re-inventing the wheel. I've proposed a National Public Library Corporation as a way to centralize library services where it makes sense while preserving local autonomy and authenticity. The NPL, as I've described it, would provide or securely facilitate many of the services you listed at the end of your post.