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Libraries are Free to Users and so is Google . . .

I asked some library folk why Google was so popular. They answered that it’s magic sauce was that it was free. I countered with “How much does your library charge?”

Most libraries are free to users and so is Google . . . so what is the difference?

First, let’s look at Google’s business model:

How Google Takes 54 Cents From Every Dollar Spent On Web Advertising

So I think we need to make a a chart of what the differences are between Google and Libraries. Obviously “free” is not enough. (And clearly I am working on an article about this . . . so help me out in the comments)

Quickly off the top of my head (5 minutes or so):

Libraries have:

– real, professionally trained staff that help
– a bias towards quality
– geographic proximity with communities
– alignment with learning or community goals
– hard copy and electronic resources
– a bias towards patron privavcy and confidentiality
– bridges across the economic and ability divide
– trust

Google has:

– more stuff
– a neat algorithm
– a unified brand
– a mobile strategy at the point of need
– only focuses on the big stuff



Posted on: May 31, 2011, 2:24 pm Category: Uncategorized

24 Responses

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  1. Bill Manson said

    Google has the convenience factor. Google is instantaneous. Those two trump depth and interaction.

  2. Google has the same level of access to its services 24 hours a day, every day, even Christmas.

    Libraries can provide a ‘second set of eyes’ in researching to help refine results while Google just offers spell checking and some minor thesaurus type help with search terms.

    Google offers pseudo-anonymity for the shy user, Google never would accidentally slip out with “You have a rash WHERE?!?”.

  3. Punch Jackson said

    Google staff are also highly trained
    Libraries are a quasi franchised organization with decentralized policy boards, Google has an Emperor.
    Libraries seem to have trouble collaborating at the core (stand way back)
    Libraries don’t like product endorsements, lottery funds or marketing schemes
    LIbraries like to secretly compete….with each other!

  4. admin said

    Good ones, Punch!

  5. Google is continually improving the quality of it’s access and retrieval tools.

    Take Scholar as an example, when it started, as a librarian, it was easy to say that it is a nice idea, but isn’t yet functional enough to really compete with our separate siloed databases. After a year, Google’s scholar had improved, while our offereings were static. After two years, scholar improved further, while the quality of our databases remained static. After several more years, Google had added court cases and patents, and made it easier to connect with our link resolver. The quality of library databases remained exceptional, but static.

    At some point, if it has not already, a mediocre product that is continually improving will overtake a quality product that remains static.

  6. StevenB said

    Google customizes the results for each searcher so that you get the results that Google wants you to see so that it limits your access to what’s truly available – no doubt to influence your thinking and buying behaviors. Libraries and the electronic resources they provide are based on transparent policies that provide everyone in the community with access to the same information (not counting pornography filters). Neither one is truly free. Residents, students, etc. pay for their libraries through taxes, tuition, etc. Google users pay for their searching by giving up their privacy rights and allowing Google to give them pre-selected content. There’s always a price to pay.

  7. I wanted to point out something obvious which is, nonetheless, taken for granted.

    Libraries need Google. Google needs libraries.

    One of the reasons young people flock to libraries these days (though certainly not the only reason) is to use its computers to access the Internet (in general) and specifically to use Google. Not everyone owns a laptop / blackberry and even those who do might prefer to use the library’s computers (bigger screens, more comfortable environment, easier to work on projects together with people).

    One of the reasons young people flock to Google (though certainly not the only reason) is to get information about libraries &/or to access the content of books. I’ve heard “Thanks to Google Books, we no longer need libraries”, but my response to that is (a) And where do you think Google is getting the books to scan from? (b) Have you seen how many mis-scanned pages there are in Google Books? (c) Do you have any idea how many books have not yet been scanned by Google Books or how long it’s going to take for Google to catch up? (d) You ever use Google to discover a great book that you want to read from cover to cover and then learned that all of the good sections aren’t covered by the “preview” -or- that only “snippets” may be seen -or- that the title has no preview available at all?

    Personally, I have appreciated the “complete word index” feture of book searches at both Google and Amazon. We librarians can patiently teach our patrons about how book indexes and table of contents work, but when it’s 5 minutes to closing and a desperate high school kid is having trouble finding the exact passage to cite for a footnote in his term paper and all you can do is shrug your shoulders and say “sorry”, it can be disheartening. Yet, that same kid can type the first words of the sentence into Google books and get all the info he needs for the footnote. Technology isn’t always better, but it can be awfully impressive for certain tasks.

    I recall learning about SDI (selective dissemination of information) and seeing it in practice when I had a summer job at the Ministry of Labour Library. Now, we have “Google alerts” which attempts to duplicate the service, often with mixed results (since there is no keyword authority, no feedback, and no humans to hep refine & improve the search strategies).

    There’s a not-so-old metaphor that the Internet is like an enormous library with all of the books scattered all over the place. I don’t think it’s fair to say that about Google, but Google is certainly not as effective – in certain ways – as librarians, when it comes to getting the answers a searcher is looking for.

  8. I can’t wait to see the results of this!!! We need to see articles like this, inside — but moreso outside — our profession.

    My suggestions:

    * Google has SPEED & simplicity.

    * Libs return true search results, not hits that some corporation paid to place.

    * Libs exist to serve you, not to make money off your questions.

    * Lib answers have been vetted by actual human brains; there’s somebody there to sift through the nonsense answers that arise due to keywords.

    But — so what??
    Here’s the problem I see with us trying to look better than Google. All the things you listed above, Stephen — professionals, quality, geography, alignment, privacy, trust — many people **don’t care about those things.** They just want some basic answer, right now. Why should it come from a pro? What’s a “quality” answer? If the answer has bias, who cares, as long as it’s a bias that I agree with?

    Most people — esp the young, & even an increasing # of academics — just don’t see / understand / appreciate the difference between answers from human pros and automated algorithms. That’s what keeps me up at night.

  9. Brendan Howley said

    Sorry but this conversation is way off mark: Google isn’t a content company: it’s an index. In fact, if it weren’t for libraries, Google wouldn’t exist—Google stands on the shoulders of 500+ years of publishing and the communities publishing co-created. Google optimizes advertising placement—a killer business model. But not for long: Google can’t scale down to the truly personal…which is why Facebook so terrifies them. For more on Google’s search ineptitude (I use Twitter far more than Google for authoritative content fast: gets me URLs I want much more directly than Google) see Eli Pariser’s TED speak on “filter bubbles” here: . Or, for fun, get on the phone with a friend and use the same search string on Google…and see what great content you miss because Google thinks their algorithm is smarter than you are 🙂

  10. admin said

    Hmmm. It’s only off the mark if you’re not in library land and haven’t had to answer this all too common question from users, voters, budget demons, funders and citizens: “Why do we need libraries at all when everything’s available on the web? We have a budget crisis you know.” With school and public libraries threated with or closing, we need better argumentation.
    iTunes stands on the shoulders of centuries of music. Ask a physical music retailer how they differ from it.
    e-Books pose a similar threat/opportunity matrix for libraries.

  11. Mirjana M said

    Google is fun, always open, no one is looking, always lots of answers; No one admits not findining on Google, that’s a real no-no . Google makes everyone feel able and powerful (I FOUND IT ON GOOGLE); !
    In short – it’s a no brainer!

    Library has rules, opening hours, one have to understand the logic behind the numbers, to ask somebody for explanation and to read, read, (just text no video) … in short: one has to think!

    BTW I agree with Kathy Dempsey when she says that people want just a basic information, nothing more.
    BTW2 Great idea, Stephen. Looking forward to reading the final article.

  12. admin said

    Thanks. Of course you mean people ‘think’ no one is watching when we know they are to target the ads!

  13. Jen R said

    Apparently students love to search and they are pretty good at it, however the next step, and I would argue the more important step now is the analysis of what is appropriate, relevant, accurate, within context, etc. and this part students are not so good at — and that’s where we (librarians) come in — we step in at the point where Google falls short, relevancy ranking isn’t enough — well at least not until the rise of the semantic web.

  14. I’ve held meetings in my library but not on Google. I feel connected to my library but not to Google. I have friends at my library but not at Google. I can meet face-to-face with people at my library but not on Google. I use Google differently than I use my Library and I find both useful in different ways. Wouldn’t want to do without either for very long.

  15. P Flanigan said

    Libraries have the bonus of providing a venue for their users, which was said over and over to me in Library School, but most importantly Libraries provide an opportunity for a dialogue between an information professional and a frustrated user. Google may not always be as successful in trying to decipher a user’s unsuccessful search strategy.

    In short, each is a valuable resource, one being better depending only on the need of the user. For example, if I want to get tickets to a movie, I don’t really need a human interaction, I just need what I want and access to the buttons to push, however if I’ve gone through all of the “self help” tips trying to troubleshoot an issue with my Satellite TV, then I want a human, that is a satellite TV professional.

    Both are successful in realizing that their users have different needs and search strategies.

  16. Libraries are not free . They are paid for by taxes. Residents and property owners get a ‘free’ library card because they pay taxes. Visitors (to my locale) can pay $10 per month for a Library Visiters Card.

  17. admin said

    Obviously – Actually nothing is free by that argument. Someone is always paying.
    But free on every transaction removes the buy decision and unfetters the access to information.
    When the quotation “Information wants to be free” was made Stewart Brand meant unfettered as well as being about cost.

  18. Melissa said

    Haven’t read through the comments yet, but:

    – Libraries provide free access (well, “free” as in “you already paid for it with your taxes or tuition or whatever, so why not use it?”) to things that people can then use for free.
    – Google provides free access to things that can sometimes be used for free and sometimes must be paid for. Just because that book or article you want can be found with Google doesn’t mean it is free, or legal.

  19. Some interesting comments here about people feeling anonymous or “more private” on Google. We now know that Google is perhaps the most efficient tracker of individual web usage – not only has it stored that information, it has used it for targeted advertising, and for a little while it was selling some of that information.

    Not sure if the Google Maps scandal in Australia has been noticed in other parts of the world. Those Google Street View cars driving innocuously around our suburbs were secretly recording data on wireless networks – including network names and hardware info, and MAC addresses of connected devices, and sometimes other data traveling across unsecured networks. Google embedded that data into their GIS. After a storm of protest, Google agreed to delete the data. I wonder what else they have accidentally recorded?

  20. akarobingoodfellow said

    Libraries who do collaborate particularly virtually (UK’s Enquire service) is a collaborative virtual reference service, backed up by QuestionPoint’s 24/7 Reference cooperative, allows 365 access to information (as does Google), it allows users to remain anonymous (as does Google), allows comprehensive offline research if required. It does not sell information, but does rely on funding.
    There are many things libraries are trying to do to raise their game of access and visibility, but whilst remaining independent, funding is always an issue when there are no ads or corporate sponsors.

  21. debbiefuco said

    “Libraries have bias toward quality” Who decides what is quality? I use Google Scholar and that provides ‘quality.’ If I can’t get an article via Google Scholar, at least I know it exists, and I get it from my university’s library. I think they can both coexist and flourish.

  22. admin said

    Debbie: Yes they can and do co-exist but if you truly believe that Google Scholar points you to everything then I have some swampland in Nigeria to sell you! gScholar’s usage numbers have plummeted.

  23. Libraries are continually needing to answer questions like “Why can’t the library be more like Google?” and “What does the library have that Google does not?” So I am definitely looking forward to more discussion on this, and your upcoming article!

    A few answers we have in our academic library in the US:

    1. “Why can’t the library be more like Google?” We are becoming more Google-like–we added an integrated search product (EbscoHost Integrated Search–EHIS). Why can’t we do more along these lines? Limited budget–we don’t have the capacity of Google to develop our own search processes, we don’t have the advanced servers, and we don’t have programming time (a result of doing more with less). Maybe our vendors will solve some of these issues for us by developing more sophisticated discovery tools that small libraries can actually afford? Maybe open source alternatives will come up? We need to keep an eye out for developments like these.

    2. “What does the library have the Google does not?” Resources that your professors approve of! And resources that are free! We are often amazed at how many students (and faculty) are unaware of the existence of Google Scholar. To them, Google is just They are surprised to find out that they can discover scholarly articles on Scholar–and even more surprised to find out that the library’s holdings show up there! But students who have used both Google Scholar and the library’s Integrated Search box say that the library’s Integrated Search actually saved them time–one search got them the resources that they needed–and that their professors would approve of.

    Another thing libraries have that Google does not is people who will provide personalized assistance. People who can be trusted. People who know the needs of the local campus. And people who really care about the educational outcomes of the students.

    And libraries often have other things as well that Google does not have–special collections, archives–although, more and more, Google WILL have these things because we’re digitizing what we can in order to make them available to scholars everywhere. So they may be findable in Google, but researchers usually then prefer looking through the pages created by the holding library to get an in-depth understanding of the collection.

    And finally, I don’t think librarians should be anti-Google–in fact, many of us use Google quite a bit in our professional work. I often turn to Google to find something quickly for a patron on virtual reference–just to send something out to get a conversation started about what he/she is looking for. I can’t tell you how many times I have found something they really could use on Google–and they are amazed that someone else could find that, because they thought that they already searched Google. So our skills are valuable–even while using Google!

    Good luck with the article! And I’ll look forward to your posts as you write it!

  24. rriskin said

    Google, Firefox, Opera…. but only Google has a Scholar?
    Major web browsers lag behind in not offering up something like the Google Scholar.
    Why and how can the competitor browers offer up something like Google Scholar … maybe in the new Oompa-Loompas Scholar Browser? Can’t wait for the chocolate fragrance or gesture motion browers to come online! I want a trip in that Glass Elevator too! 🙂