in ALA2006, Conference, Google, Library Catalog, Open WorldCat

ALA 2006: Future of Search

This oversubscribed session (I sat on the floor, as did many others) featured Stephen Abram of Sirsi/Dynix/SLA president and Joe Janes of the University of Washington debating the future of search, moderated by LJ columnist Roy Tennant.

Abram asked a pointed question, which decided the debate early, “Were libraries ever about search? Search was rarely the point…unless you wanted to become a librarian.”  In Abram’s view, the current threat to libraries comes from user communities like Facebook/MySpace, since MySpace is now the 6th largest search engine. Other threats to libraries include the Google patent on quality.

Abram said the problem of the future is winnowing, and that you cannot teach people to search.”Boolean doesn’t work,” he said. Abram felt it was a given that more intelligence needs to be built into the interface.

In more sociological musings, Abram said “Facts have a half-life of 12 years,” and social networks matter since “teens and 20s live through their social networks. The world is ahead of us, and teams are contextual. People solve problems in groups.”

Joe Janes asked, “What would happen if you made WorldCat open source? Would the fortress of metadata in Dublin, OH crumble?” When asked if libraries should participate in OpenWorldCat, Abram said, “Sure, why not? Our competitor is ignorance, not access. Libraries transform lives.”

Janes pointed out that none of the current search services (Google Answers, Yahoo Answers, and the coming Microsoft  Answers) have worked well, and Tennant said “While Google and Yahoo may have the eyeballs of users, libraries have the feet of users.”

In an interesting digression from the question at hand, Abram asked why libraries aren’t creating interesting tools like LibraryThing and LibraryELF (look for a July NetConnect feature about the ELF by Liz Burns). Janes said it comes back to privacy concerns, since this is the “looking over your shoulder decade. Hi, NSA!” With the NSA and TSA examining search, banking, and phone records, library privacy ethics are being challenged like no recent time in history.

Roy Tennant asked if libraries should incorporate better interface design, relevance ranking, spelling suggestions, and faceting browsing. Abram said it’s already happening at North Carolina State University with the Endeca catalog project. The Grokker pilot at Stanford is another notable example, and the visual contents and tiled results set mirror how people learn. “Since the search engines are having problems putting ads in visual search, it’s good for librarians.”

Abram got the most laughter by pointing out that the thing that killed Dialog was listening to their users. As librarian requests made Dialog even more precise, “At the end of a Dialog search, you could squeeze a diamond out of your ass.” Janes said the perfect search is “no search at all, one that has the lightest cognitive load.”

Since libraries are, in Janes’ words, “a conservation organization because the human record is at stake, the worst nightmare is that nothing changes and libraries die. The finest vision is to put Google out of business.” Abram’s view was libraries must become better at advocacy and trust users to lay paths through catalog tagging and other vendor initiatives.

The question of the future of search turned into the future of libraries, and Joe Janes concluded that “Libraries are in the business of vacations we enabled, cars we helped fix, businesses we started, and helping people move.” Abram ended with a pithy slogan for libraries, the place of “Bricks, Clicks, and Tricks.”

Other commentary here:
The Shifted Librarian: 20060624 Who Controls the Future of Search?
Library Web Chic » Blog Archive » The Ultimate Debate : Who Controls the Future of Search
LITA Blog » Blog Archive » The Ultimate Debate: Who Controls the Future of Search
AASL Weblog – The Ultimate Debate: Who Controls the Future of Search?

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