A Google Universe? An open letter to the New York Times
To the Editor:
Re: "Old Search Engine, the Library, Tries to Fit Into Google World" (news article, June 21, 2004). It was sad to read the comments of librarians who felt they had nothing to offer their patrons in the new, Google world - some of whom had even left their profession because they felt obsolete. Never have we needed librarians more.
Many educators and users are concerned, and rightly so, about how standards of accuracy and reliability will be upheld in a Google universe. Traditional scholarship has been based on long-established techniques meant to make sure readers could trust the materials they read at the library. Academic presses, managed by knowledgeable editors, selected books for publication in consultation with additional subject specialists. Articles were published in peer reviewed journals, headed by a knowledgable editor and supported by a scholarly advisory board, and reputable journals were indexed in respected bibliographies. Encyclopedias were published under the supervision of a general editor, supported by editors for subject fields, and uniform standards for verifying facts and accuracy were in place. Books, articles, and other reference materials were reviewed and recommended in respected publications. Librarians could rely on the work of all these editors, advisors, reviewers and peer reviewers in their selection process. At the library, you could be assured that the information the librarians had acquired for you to read and use for research was pretty reliable (not infallible of course but the best they could produce) because of this structure that stood behind it. These techniques have been a kind of filtering system in the transmission of knowledge, protecting its quality and legitimacy.
It's sometimes claimed that the internet will change all this. If so, much will be lost. Some of us working online believe that the best way to develop the internet as a reliable information environment is to emulate the traditional academic apparatus. In particular, reference materials should continue to be evaluated and selected by subject specialists and information experts (the people who used to be called "librarians") along with peer reviewers. Libraries, in fact, have a unique opportunity to influence the library user's internet experience by prominently featuring links to reliable online reference information on their library web sites. Many of the best academic libraries, such as the Yale library, are already designing such useful portals.
It will require the commitment of librarians and subject specialists working together to develop a public, knowledge-shared system on the internet, one that will contain reference materials that all can use with confidence. Research and scholarly reference material may eventually have to be maintained in a two-tier system, with the more extensive and in-depth material available only by subscription. However, the public has the right and the need for more reliable information than currently exists on the free internet.
As the Times article points out, students today rely often exclusively on the internet for their research. If Wiki is the best (and only thing) the internet has to offer, those students will be missing so much.