The existence of libraries is often questioned by some when it comes to information seeking. In this digital age, it’s normal practice for people to go to search engines like Google when they need to find information about anything they are concerned with. Well, if Google can provide all the information we need, then why do we still need libraries? Before we proceed any further, we may want to ask ourselves two questions: Can Google really provide all the information we need? And do we really know what we need?
When I took INFO 202 Information Retrieval System this summer, I came across an inspiring talk called “Challenging the Algorithms of Oppression” by Safiya Noble.
I appreciate how Dr. Noble conceptualized the different mechanisms behind search engines and libraries. She stated that “search engines are not information retrieval algorithms” and that “they’re not concerned with information retrieval in the way that information professionals like librarians… are concerned with”. Search engines, as she put it, deal with” advertising algorithms” which link people to “things that are commercially viable and profitable” (Noble, 2016, 6:19).
We may all have had amazing/unpleasant experience with Google’s autosuggesting. Thanks to “big data”, we are often astonished by how Google understands us so well that it knows exactly what we are looking for. However, it can also be misleading and even annoying when we are just looking for general knowledge about a certain country, a group of people or a phenomenon – because the top-ranked websites are not necessarily the most objective or informative ones. In the article “What World Are We Building?”, Danah Boyd raised the issue of statistical prejudice where she mentioned that machine can learn from “data entered as input” and “when the data you input s biased, what you get out is just as biased” (2016). I believe this echoes with Dr. Nobel’s idea that search engines are using algorithms that are not adopted by information retrieval systems in libraries. Therefore, the information they provide is very much shaped by their users and the user generated data which can be biased in many ways.
So, in the age of algorithms, should information seeking behaviors still involve humans? The answer is obvious. As Michael Bhaskar mentioned, the need for “informed and idiosyncratic selections” is increasing because curation “captures this irreplaceable human touch” (2016). Technology will only prosper when human beings can all benefit from it. Without the “human touch”, technology can only take us thus far.
“We want to be surprised. We want expertise, distinctive aesthetic judgments, clear expenditure of time and effort. We relish the messy reality of another’s taste and a trusted personal connection. We don’t just want correlations – we want a why, a narrative, which machines can’t provide.”Michael Bhaskar, 2016
Now let’s go back to the question at the very beginning – why do we still need libraries? To make my point, I’d rather rephrase it to “why do we still need library services offered by humans?” As far as I see it, library service is more about human connections than about books. When we guide users to participate in reshaping library services, we are actually caring for their needs. By listening to our users, we empathize with them. Because of the human interactions, we are able to learn from their stories and “surprise” them by meeting their needs that they didn’t even know existed. A hyperlinked community is very indicative of the technological elements in the services we offer, but it also envisions a community where human connections are greatly valued and appreciated – and this, I believe, is what truly linked us.
Bhaskar, M. (2016, Sep 30). In the age of the algorithm, the human gatekeeper is back. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2016/sep/30/age-of-algorithm-human-gatekeeper
Boyd, D. (2016, Jan 25). What world are we building? Medium. https://points.datasociety.net/what-world-are-we-building-9978495dd9ad#.auzbwo27v
Noble, S. (2016). Challenging the Algorithms of Oppression [Video file]. https://youtu.be/iRVZozEEWlE