OCLC’s planned search engine: The pros and cons of Web crapola filtering by librarians
November 8, 2008 | 10:13 am
Damned if I know. I simply recall hearing a cable commentator say such things.
If I put the above on the Web as absolute fact, then I’d be spreading, er, crapola—unverified information that may or may not be accurate, even if Google picks it up because of TeleRead’s prominence in its niche.
Weighted toward sites popular with librarians
“Reference Extract is envisioned as a Web search experience similar to those provided by the world’s most popular search engines. However, unlike other search engines, Reference Extract will be built for maximum credibility of search results by relying on the expertise of librarians. Users will enter a search term and receive results weighted toward sites most often used by librarians at institutions such as the Library of Congress, the University of Washington, the State Library of Maryland, and over 2,000 other libraries worldwide.”
Yes, there are overlaps with TeleRead, my proposal for well-stocked national digital library systems in the U.S. and other countries. I love the idea of helping people find better information than what Google links often provide. Check out a 2004 TeleRead item, Free Hate site gets Rank #1 for word ‘Jew’ on Google—while Anne Frank’s Diary is verboten for free use. Some white hats organized a counter-linking campaign, but even now, the hate site Jew Watch claims the third- and fourth-highest results (no links provided here, thanks). A bigot like Archie Bunker would feel at home with such beauts as “Jewish Communist Rulers and Killers” and “Jewish Mind Control Mechanisms.” I can also think of quackish health cures unwittingly promoted by Google’s algorithms.
So we badly need search engines with more reliable crapola screening than the company’s PageRank system. Information literacy is a laudable goal, but K-12 students are hardly born with it. For adults in search of trustworthy information, moreover, especially on crucial matters such as health, the planned search engine could save time and maybe even lives.
Still, librarians are hardly omniscient gods. When it comes to Internet and e-book matters, I can remember some appalling misinformation spread by librarians. How about a former ALA president’s bizarre take on bloggers, for example? As a group librarians are far more trustworthy than stockbrokers or politicians or, yes, the blog world at large, but even then I would exercise caution. Librarians are humans with their own sets of prejudices on various topics, including, yes, e-books, which some see as a threat to libraries’ existing business models.
Another downside is that so far, at least, the embryonic search engine project hardly has the money to match Google’s reach. The news release says “the planning phase of this project is funded through a $100,000 grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.” A pittance—given the scope of the job ahead. Granted, more money will probably be on the way. OCLC is no minnow and “has provided computer-based cataloging, reference, resource sharing, eContent, preservation, library management and Web services to 60,000 libraries in 112 countries and territories.” But Google’s capitalization is north of $100 billion dollars.
A positive just the same
Just the same, the planned site is a positive. Google could try to compete with its own librarian-oriented search service with heavy-duty crapola filtering, but it’s a profit-making company reliant on advertising, and this very fact might skew the search results. I say we really need a mix of the two approaches, and I love the idea of librarians entering the search game in a major way rather than simply lazing back and entrusting their fates so heavily to Google.
Related: An existing site, Librarians’ Internet Index, a portal with the tag line “Web sites you can trust.” It will be interesting to see closely how its recommended sites jibe with a list of those played up by Reference Extract. Will there be any cooperation between the two organizations? How much and in what forms? True, the crapola filters work in different ways—LII uses old-fashioned human selections, directly—but these sites are more or less in the same territory.
Reminders/disclosures: I own a tiny amount of Google stock as a long-term retirement investment and am not a librarian, although I’ve been writing on digital libraries in a TeleRead context since the early 1990s.