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.


References:

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

12 Comments on Linked by What? – Reflection on Participatory Service and Hyperlinked Communities

  1. What a great post, thank you! I also learned about Dr. Noble’s work in INFO 202 and have been referencing it ever since. Your post has left me with a lot of question. If algorithms learn from the humans who create and use them (which they do), I wonder what will happen when those humans also learn to identify their biases? In Christian Lauersen’s keynote, “Do you want to dance? Inclusion and belonging in libraries and beyond”, he addresses the need for everyone to identify, understand, and learn from our biases in order to change them. I don’t see white people, such as myself, being fully capable of doing this work alone. I believe it needs to be done in community and solidarity with People of Color. When looking at other aspects of librarianship, a common suggestion to diversifying a collection or services starts with diversifying the staff and LIS. This “diversify the staff” approach is recommended in other industries as well, including tech. With the rapid growth of tech, can humans breaking down their biases and assembling (and learning how to maintain) diverse teams truly catch up with the algorithms that are causing harm? Thank you again for an interesting, thought-provoking post!

    • Thank you Genesee! I really appreciate your thoughtful and heartfelt comment. I agree that we should start with ourselves in identifying biases and that changes should also involve efforts and contribution from the whole society. What you said also reminds me of Yuval Noah Harari’s book, 21 Lessons for the 21st Century. The author raised his concerns about today’s most pressing issues, and the first part is about modern technology. When technologies like AI and algorithms advance at a fascinating speed, we must be aware of the political, social, ethical and philosophical impact they may bring. If we can’t answer the fundamental questions in human society, it’s very unlikely these questions will be solved by technology.

  2. The hyperlinked library is about building those human connections with the help of reaching users through technology, not because of technology. Big data sources like Google are here to stay, it seems like. However, like you said, Google gives you searches that Google will most gain from– hoping that you, as a consumer, will want to buy whatever you searched for and Google will make a profit. With the library, it isn’t about what the library has to gain, it’s about helping the user without asking for anything in return. Also, I adore that you mentioned that the library is more about human connection than books. And it’s because of that human connection, that we still need libraries. Thank you for such a thoughtful post!

    • Thank you Jeanna! I guess most of us often get asked why we want to work in a library and most people (at least people around me) assume that library work is only about checking in or checking out books. Having worked in an academic library for over five years now, I think it’s my responsibility to help change that stereotype of libraries and let more people understand that library offers so much more than books, and that library staff’s job is rather complex and fulfilling.

  3. Hi @yezhai2020 thank you for sharing the Dr. Nobel clip. Your post makes great connections with Boyd and Bhaskar, too. I really like how you tie everything in with the importance of the human connection.

    • Thank you so much for reading my post Deana! I like this week’s readings and I can relate them to some of my own experience, so I found it easy to tie them together in my writing. Dr. Nobel has other great talks on her book as well!

  4. Hi @yezhai2020! I needed this post today! Dr. Noble’s work came up this morning in the discussion for the other class that I’m taking, and I LOVED the clip you included. Wow! Also, I really appreciate the your focus on the value of the human element in librarianship. Thank you!

    • Thank you Molly! I’m so glad that you liked Dr. Nobel’s clip! I hope the “human touch” can also comfort you a little in these trying times. 🙂

  5. Hi Ye,

    I really enjoyed reading your blog! It reminded me of a good quote attributed to Neil Gaiman:

    “Google can bring you back 100,000 answers. A librarian can bring you back the right one.”

    In INFO 202 I remember coming across an article where researchers hypothesized that people trust Google’s ability to yield the most accurate information so much that they rarely go beyond the first few results. The researchers then manipulated a search result page so that the links that were initially at the top were now at the bottom, and they found that users still clicked the top links even though the more relevant links were now at the bottom of the page. While Google can conveniently locate pretty relevant search results, their ulterior motive is certainly not as noble as the librarian’s.

    • Thank you Sarah! You are right, I remember that article in INFO 202 as well. In my humble opinion, it also shows how well search engines (or other big companies) are doing with their user research. When you study the habits and all sorts of user behaviors when they use a product, and when you understand the psychology behind it, you can make the best use of these researches to keep your users or attract more long-tail users. I think this can inspire us when we are conducting user research in libraries and other information centers.

    • Thank you Professor! I also enjoyed the conversation and I’m really happy that we get to share our thoughts here!

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