Monday, April 16, 2007

T. Scott and the Search Giants: quest for the information industry's future

You'd expect our first two speakers, Microsoft's Cliff Guren, Director of Publishing Evangelism, and Google's Philippe Colombet (Manager, Strategic Partner Development), to share a number of common themes, and indeed they did (and, for that matter, a fast and loose approach to their instruction not to use their prime speaking slots for product reviews). Both referenced the old adage that "if it's not online, it doesn't exist": a myth, said Microsoft, since only 5% of the world's information is currently available online; but one we must acknowledge and act on, said Google, as offline data will effectively cease to exist if it cannot be found in online searches.

Both speakers also noted that "what is at the periphery will be at the centre of our lives". Colombet noted that new formats and the increasingly networked world are revolutionising user activity and the speed at which information is disseminated to users - whether its politics (his ability to follow the French elections by downloading podcasts when travelling) or football (the Coupe de Boule ringtone made available online immediately after Zidane's assault on Materazzi and being picked up by Warner for release in 20 countries).

And both talked about the rise of social software as something that will pervade the scholarly communications process, with Guren noting its potential use in the peer review and research process. Prominent opening speakers, to be sure, but perhaps offering us a little less insight than we might have hoped.

T. Scott Plutchak of the University of Alabama at Birmingham followed the search giants on to the floor with his usual mix of good humour and good sense. "How we think about our future is revealed in how we talk about it", says Scott: when we're talking sloppily, it's because we're thinking sloppily. For example, we talk as if "library" were a synonym for "librarian", when in fact we should separate the two (to allow librarians' roles to evolve and change outside of the restrictive concept of the traditional library). Whilst the library is a means by which librarians have connected users to information, it is one of many tools which can be deployed to this end.

Scott referenced the "library 2.0" phenomenon and noted that although not a fan of the label, the concepts it represents are useful to librarians. However, whilst it's great that librarians are utilising Web 2.0 technologies to connect with their users, "second life is not a replacement for first life". Personal relationships with library users are no less critical in this new age - so if
users don't come to the library any more (because its services are so readily available digitally), librarians do need to seek out other means of engagement.

During questions, Sirsi-Dynix's Stephen Abram asked Google's Colombet about the company's potential plans for adding advertising Google Scholar. Colombet said none was currently anticipated, as "we have plenty of other areas where advertising makes sense" - and Google's inventory, unlike print inventory, increases by the user. "We can afford to have products, like Scholar and Google News, that do not have AdWords related to them, because there are many other areas where this is ... less controversial and more user-friendly. There's no urgency [for us] to fill the right-hand side of the page."

David Thomas, Scholar One noted that students are doing all their research on the web; web searches return both authoritative and non-authoritative results. How does a student know which sources to go to - what advice to librarians/faculty give? Plutchak responded that faculty are now clearer that additional instruction is needed, and that librarians' skills can be utilised here. Guren adds that lack of awareness of authoritativeness of data is cyclical; general web currently rules, but we expect brands to reassert themselves as guides to "the authoritative web" and suggested something like the "Good Housekeeping Seal" (Kitemark) of information could be usefully implemented. Colombet said bravely that Google believes in the wisdom of crowds, and that while librarians are correctly tasked with giving specific guidance to users, users can also rate information (even by clicking) to create collective intelligence which can be leveraged by the web. "Google doesn't have editorial ambition, and will never rate sites", he says, although Google Scholar's content selection policies could be construed otherwise. "Identification of the original source is ample information" to ascertain the authoritativeness, or otherwise, of the data.

Sheila Cannell, University of Edinburgh brought a light end to the morning's proceedings by asking Guren and Colombet to comment on what each thinks is good about the other's product (with respect to scholarly communications)? Guren took the plunge: "sincerely, Google's crawling-based approach yields great breadth and contributes to their mission to organise the world's information" and then added the inevitable dig, "although casting the net so wide brings in the flotsam and the jetsum...". Colombet responded that he's always been "extremely impressed that Microsoft, coming from the software [as opposed to the publisher] perspective, has been able to build such a good scholarly experience as Encarta."


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