libraries in the search engine game

I was lucky enough to see another John Palfrey keynote at MLA 2011: Join Forces today, and while the idea that stuck last time was the promise and potential of the Digital Public Library of America, this time there’s two:

1. Children and teens need to be educated about information literacy.  They need to learn what their rights are and how to be responsible in terms of their digital identity, as well as how to explore the deeper resources of the web rather than just cutting and pasting Wikipedia articles.  While not all of this can fit into one curriculum, building something alongside, say, Health Ed, where they learn about other grey areas of maturity and responsibility like sexual health and drug use, might be a useful way to introduce these ideas.  (Amelia Peloquin is really the germinator of this idea, but I think it bloomed for both of us during the keynote.)

2. Libraries need to get into the search engine game.  It doesn’t even need to be said, but the resource of first resort when it comes to nearly any user question is Google.  How can libraries maneuver back into that position, or at least get in the running?  Palfrey seems to imply that they can somehow build a competitor, which I think is a. reinventing the wheel and b. totally impossible without Google’s budget.  BUT, what if we could make library resources available in Google’s search results?

I’m not talking SEO; again, there’s just not cash in the budget to hire the resources required to play that game.  Also, it’s basically hoodoo; you could spend years trying to figure out the elusive, ever-shifting algorithm or hire someone to kill a chicken over your server and the traffic would likely be the same.  However, I’m in the pipe dream stage of proposing some sort of partnership.  Fact: Google already returns results based on a user’s location.  What if Google also showed results from the local public library’s catalog?  The user could determine via search results if and how that item was available, and not only have access to deeper and more in-depth results than your average search but also be turned on to the fact that his or her library is full of awesome stuff.

How would this happen?

  1. Libraries partner with Google and Google helps figure out how to access specific catalogs based on location;
  2. Libraries make their bibliographic files available to web crawlers and Google finds it in their hearts to give these results a high page ranking;
  3. Library of Congress makes their metadata public so that searchers can use Google as a kind of open access WorldCat, choose a relevant resource and then figure out how it’s available to them;
  4. Probably a million other ways smarter people than me have already thought of, but I’m just finishing up my first semester of library school so bear with me.
Also, for this to really actually work and provide a smooth user experience, social login has to be bigger than just using facebook to watch movies (I know it already is – almost all startups today rely on FacebookConnect – I’m just using hyperbole).  To access resources directly from Google search results (when, btw, many libraries still don’t link directly to them from a catalog), a digital identity that knows what an individual does or doesn’t have access to via institutions he or she is a part of will soon start becoming a reality.  Just sayin.

Anyway, what’s in it for everyone:
  • Google: Access to library-standard metadata, better information results for the user (which is after all their beeswax, right?)
  • Libraries: Getting their resources out there to their users (again, beeswax), increasing their visibility (and most likely user base) exponentially
  • Users: More, better resources, getting plugged in to a deeper source of information, improving information seeking skills

Really, there are scores of benefits on every side of this deal, as well as just as many cons that haven’t occurred to me yet.  But we live in a time where you think of something that’s going to be awesome for the user and then try to make it happen, so I’m composing a letter to Google’s Cambridge office, and also Bing, which is looking for niches where they can outdo Google.  Because why not?

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