Google as Library or Neutral Source of Information? Perhaps neither…

Siva Vaidhyanathan has been engaged in a lengthy discussion regarding Google’s recent decision to slow down their Google Print Library project. Much of the conversations have centered on whether Google should be considered a library. This response from Eileen Snyder, a librarian at UW-Madison, seems to argue that Google is less like a library because libraries actively classify and act as gatekeepers of information, while Google just presents search results:

…one thing that has been missing from this discussion – the role of the librarian in classifying information so that people can find resources that are truly relevant to their research.

Sure, Google has a cool algorithm that will list supposedly relevant resources with your keywords, and that’s great, especially when you’re looking for something specific. But as this article from Library Journal points out, it’s not really the best way to go about real, in-depth research.

A library can be many different things, from a nice place to bring your toddler for story hour, to a great repository of humankind’s greatest intellectual work. But it is and always has been more than just a heap of information. In the past, the librarian was a gatekeeper, guarding knowledge and meting it out as she saw fit. Today, a more apt analogy might be the librarian as a dam. We hold back the flood of information, allowing access to streams that are suitable and manageable by the individual. Well, OK, maybe that analogy needs some work, but in any case, though I can’t make a legal argument, I don’t think that Google Print can be considered a library, in large part because there is no real organization of the information it contains.

Siva correctly adds that

Google’s search algorithms are not innocent. Nor are they open to interrogation or revision. Librarians work transparently, or at least under an ideology that demands openness and accountability.

Google lacks accountability both in its service and its structure.

I couldn’t agree more.

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