“What Does It Mean To Be Literate in the Age of Google?”


Apologies for cross-posting, but I think this is important for everyone.

I would like to suggest that everyone watch a public lecture from Princeton by Daniel Russell, who has the improbable job title: Über Tech Lead for Search Quality and User Happiness at Google. His talk was “What Does It Mean To Be Literate in the Age of Google?” http://hulk03.princeton.edu:8080/WebMedia/flash/lectures/20120228_publect_russell.shtml. It’s rather long, but the talk is very important for all librarians I think. Some of the questions he is asked are not bad either.

I have mentioned in several postings that it is important to build tools that fulfill the needs of the public and not only our own needs. Of course, one of the main problems is that we need to find out what the public wants, but even beyond that, since systems have changed, and are changing so radically, we also need to find out what is even possible to do with the new search powers at our disposal. This lecture provides that level of information. Among many examples, he mentions his blog where he asks “research questions”, http://searchresearch1.blogspot.it/. He gave an example of one of those questions: it was a photo of an unknown cityscape taken out of a window. The question was: what is the phone number of the office where the picture was taken? Apparently, it can be done today!

While that is not such a realistic question, the very fact that it could be answered verges on the incredible. Of course, few people are able to do it (I can’t, although the answer is on his blog). His solution for people is, strangely enough, that everyone train themselves! To become “informate” is the term he uses.

My own opinion is that searching the library catalog was and is immeasurably simpler than what he suggests, and librarian experience shows that even that turned out to be too much. To do what he suggests requires much more skill, practice and time, and I think is not a solution. Nevertheless, someone needs to be the expert in the kind of searching he describes, and this would seem to be a perfect niche for librarians. Two points he mentioned are needed to become “informate”: when searching you must be: persistent and creative. Librarians fulfill both of those requirements.

Of course, our tools must fit into these new types of space-age technology, and it becomes clearer that the “user tasks” as enumerated by FRBR seem more and more tired and antiquated by the minute.