This is the preprint version of the guest editorial published in the September issue of the subscription-based Informed Librarian.
paraphrase the adage: you can’t be informed enough if you are a
librarian. Patrons expect you to find the answer to everything which
Google et al. are not capable of answering at all, or not in a feasible
way. With the traditional print and digital tools well-educated and
continuously (self-)trained librarians clearly had the advantage over the
patrons who missed or slept through the LIS 100 course or the library
orientation session, or never had the opportunity to take either.
Wherever I travel to when I step out of my ivory tower, I always visit libraries and learn how informed are librarians elsewhere. I am lucky to be close to some first class, well-informed librarians and library students at my home base, and I am always delighted when meeting similar ones elsewhere. However, I also see the increasing proportion of librarians who are and may remain underinformed about the classic digital reference tools, and fail to use the best resources and the best search techniques for finding the best answers in the best way.
compared to the 1980s and 1990s, there seem to be
more and more librarians who graduate without having taken
courses about basic and advanced
database searching, and without having become familiar with the
related core literature. They can get away with this because of the
growing a) grade inflation at every academic level,
b) tolerance of excuse making by students, c) decline
of expectations – all these
parallel to the increase of the often stale and intellectually very
distant asynchronous distance
education courses (the
euphemism for getting a master degree without ever attending live
lectures, participating in classes, and interacting with faculty and
fellow students). These traits are not anymore the exclusive trademarks of
diploma mills, and old-fashioned correspondence courses.
phenomenon follows the overall trend of not only accepting and
understanding, but embracing and glorifying
the shallow and hollow products, services and performances in all
walks of life. Television programming offers the best model for how this
attitude is likely to spread
and where it is leading to in our profession by putting the emphasis on
the feel-good instead of the
learn-good aspect of educating would be librarians.
Just as television, the Internet helped and still helps a lot in educating and informing people. But the shallow and hollow programs, the cheap or free content perceived as “good enough” “wiki enough” and “easy enough”, crowd out the really good and excellent options, especially the ones which are not free. (True, there are cheap resources also among the expensive subscription-based ones, and I do write about them in my review columns.)
There was nothing wrong with the launch of Fox News as a special channel for those who prefer commentaries by talking and barking heads in a row instead of real news brought to you through intelligent, objective, and measured style by, say, Walter Cronkite, Peter Jennings, Jim Lehrer or Charlie Rose. The glorification of Nancy Grace and the eponymous legal/public affairs show (an absolute misnomer lacking any grace, and full of studied, strained diction, phony metacommunication mannerism, and cheap smarming, “my friends”) illustrates where CNN got to from the era when the sharp and genuine Greta van Susteren (currently at Fox News) was its legal analyst one senseless plastic surgery and –30 decibels earlier.
is enough of a concern that the public turns to Google
for everything. It is more of a concern when underinformed
librarians do so, instead of using the resources under their nose, (and
informing their patrons about them) which are much better for answering
the question, and which the libraries and often the taxpayers pay for.
It is even worse when mightily informed librarians and other information professionals hop on the Google adulation bandwagon as is the case with Google Scholar which should not be taken lightly. It is as if architects would rave about Las Vegas. Its faux pyramids of Luxor, the fake Eiffel Tower and Rialto Bridge including the canals and the gondoliers hired straight from New Jersey, make many tourists feel as if they were in Paris, Giza, or Venice, and they still could enjoy one of the many Elvis impersonators for dessert. They feel good because of avoiding the inconvenience and costs of really getting to the real venue.
Similarly, Wikipedia, InformationSphere, the Free Internet Encyclopedia (aka Davis Encyclopedia), Encyberpedia and other look-alikes – which appear in the stale and often inaccurate Open Directory (used also by Google Directory), and link in the collections compiled by underinformed librarians. They make most users feel good even when they are brutally bad. Undoubtedly, Google Scholar and Wikipedia have some remarkable features and content, they can be “good enough” for, say, undergrad students for a quick fix, but not for real scholars and serious research for reasons that I discussed most recently here. They cannot be the alpha and the omega for degree holding, supposedly informed librarians and other information professionals, and should not be celebrated as the Great Leader and Dear Leader in North Korea, or guests in a talk show recording session.
did not feel good when I saw
the quotation from the former head of the worthy BioMed Central open
access project about Google Scholar, asserting
that it is “a threat to Scopus, it is better, and it is free”.
Free it is, but better? As I am writing this guest column I can’t claim
that the July, 2005 editorial of Roy Tennant in Library
Journal made me feel good.
I almost always agree with the opinions and commentaries in his incisive,
insightful editorials, and I like his succinct, no-words-minced style.
However in the said column,
he is way too soft on the crippling content and software deficiencies of
Google Scholar. Instead,
gushes repeatedly about (one
of) the designer(s) of Google Scholar as Oprah did before and during
the interview about Tom Cruise’s
current eternal love.
My pain is somewhat eased that not all the really informed librarians and other information professionals get weak in the knee when talking about the good enough look-alikes. Luckily, Marydee Ojala, Greg Notess, Gary Price, Shirley Kennedy who know equally well the free resources and the subscription-based ones often publish for and speak to librarians at many fora.
Alma Swan, a scientist-turned-information-professional is one of the few scholars who see how skimpily clothed the emperor is. She summed it up very well in a substantial two-part interview given to Richard Poydner this April: “Google Scholar doesn’t do anything like ISI or Scopus do. It’s just a technology exploiting the ‘good enough’ tendency of the average researcher. At the moment it’s pretty poor …”. I couldn’t agree more with her.
The librarians who are underinformed about these issues may give a bad name to our profession. The informed librarian who got not only a diploma but also acquired knowledge in this field (even when the process did not make them feel good at the time), know all these, because they keep reading the literature, attending the workshops, testing and using the alternatives. They are the ones who keep me writing my regular and guest columns, and doing my workshops – beyond some concomitant perks. I’d rather see informed librarians than just feel-good librarians. Being informed is likely to make one feel good, too.