Opening General Session: Googlezon, Episode VI: Return of the Librarians

ROAR says the Googlezon!

Roy Tennant from the California Digital Library opened the LITA Annual Forum with a rousing discussion of the Googlezon world takeover. The always engaging and enthusiastic Roy began his session by noting that the theme of the Forum, “The Ubiquitous Web,” apparently does not apply to the conference hotel, where each of us has to pay $9.95 per day for wireless access. Hear hear!

Roy’s presentation started with a brief self-created video set to REM’s “It’s the End of the World As We Know it.” The video chronicled the start-ups of Amazon and Google and how they and their branch projects have since affected the world of finding information, products, and people, and ended with a series of projections for the future, including the merger of Google and Amazon, the creation of the “Library Alliance” of OCLC, RLG, LC, and the DLF, and Microsoft taking over a great deal of previously free content and re-packaging it as a premium for-pay service.

Roy tells us that libraries have our eyes on the long haul…not just on moving fast. He cautions, however: “If you’re comfortable you’re not paying attention.”

If you can’t beat ‘em join ‘em. Search engines are all well and good, but they don’t always serve our users in the best way possible. Roy highlighted the OCLC Open WorldCat project and OpenURL as a way to get libraries’ resources and information into search engines.


Back to the presentation.

Take the concept and run. RedLightGreen uses a simple search box and relevancy ranking, much like Google, but also uses controlled vocabulary in a useful and visible way. They also use FRBR to collapse multiple bibliographic editions into one record (usability rocks)!

Stop putting lipstick on pigs. Stop spending energy tweaking systems that are clearly outmoded (e.g. library catalogs). Focus this energy instead on creating new systems that work well. A revolution must occur, and those of us in library technology are the ones who can push this kind of revolution forward.

Be user-focused. Libraries tend to focus on creating systems that work for us as librarians and not for our users. Roy quoted his popular maxim: “Librarians like to search. Everyone else likes to find.” Minimize the number of clicks to get from the library’s homepage to library-licensed content. Do usability testing—testing mock-ups or beta sites. Roy advises doing this for small as well as large scale projects.

Keep what works. Example: OpenURL Resolvers. OpenURL Resolvers do one specific thing, and it works. Interoperable components can be easily mixed and matched, and this is key.

Fix what’s broken. Instead of giving us a grocery list of what’s broken, Roy gave us homework: to go back to our home and search Amazon, then search our library’s catalog. Which do we prefer and why? What could we do differently to make our resources work for our users? We need to talk to our users about what they like and dislike about our catalog. Roy also discussed naming: what meaning does Lexis-Nexis have for non-librarians? “While we’ve been happily automating the back office, we’ve let the front office languish.” We need to build tools that maximize the power of our licensed databases, while minimizing the pain users must experience to get access to those resources.

Strive for efficiencies. Roy says we need to learn from Amazon. If Amazon had to MARC record each of their items, they would have failed. We also need to streamline things that are routine: acquisition and circulation. Automate circulation through self-check-out.

Foster agility. The need for agility stems from uncertainty. Roy encourages a flexible taskforce structure to deal with new projects and needs in the organization.

United we stand, divided we fall. We need to collaborate with book publishers, libraries doing digitization projects (let’s all have access to that data!), and search engines much more than we have.

The presentation ended with a slide of the Nancy Pearl action figure standing in front of the vanquished Godzilla-Googlezon. Roy believes that the values we hold dear as librarians are what make us unique and valuable to our communities. We are beholden to our users, not to profit or corporate structure. This is why he continues his work, and this is why he encourages us to continue ours.

Published by

Sarah Houghton-Jan

I am a TTT expert for LITA and currently work as the Digital Futures Manager for the San Jose Public Library. I blog at

8 thoughts on “Opening General Session: Googlezon, Episode VI: Return of the Librarians”

  1. OK, Who Burned the Popcorn?

    The mass evacuation was apparently caused by someone leaving popcorn in the microwave a leetle bit too long … as we returned to the room, the gently wafting odor of burnt popcorn met our noses.

  2. Fire drills notwithstanding, this was an outstanding presentation. Credit not only to Roy, but to the audience who came up with 25 minutes’ worth of high quality questions (believed to be a record for Forum keynotes). As is often with the case after hearing Roy talk, I’m itching to get back to work and start rebuilding our catalog from the ground up.

  3. I took some notes on the Q&A and comments after the session:

    Comment: Open WorldCat and RedLightGreen *are* lipstick on pigs. Maybe all the great data we have in a pig like MARC we should keep maintaining, and let Google index it so the end users find it.

    Andrew Pace: Slaughter the pig. We’re putting our data into tab-delimited form and indexing with multiple relevance algorithms from Endeca. Not even putting into XML

    Comment: Need to know when to ignore the user. If we keep following our “Most Important” user, the squeaky wheel faculty member, then we leave behind all the undergrads. Roy: I don’t mean to imply we have only one audience. You probably need to build interfaces maximized to those two different activities. “User focused not user driven” — don’t just do what the user tells you to, craft a system better than what the user would have imagined

    Comment: What about something like a social tagging capability? User vocabulary does not match the cataloger vocabulary. Roy: Not sure about that, the #1 keyword assigned on Flickr is “me”.
    (HMM, THIS MAKES ME THINK, what about if we combine social/user tags with professional tags? Could we start using the user’s term to search user-supplied vocabulary — searching user-applied tags, or the fulltext of the documents, which in many fields is a better match for the user’s terms? Then pick up the subject headings of retrieved items, and use that to find the rest of the relevant items? How does this compare to semantic indexing? Would semantic ontologies work better than end-user social tagging or less well? What about the problem of the clueless user or the niche user in a social tagging system, who is going to have too much power to steer the rest of the audience to the subpar or the niche, rather than the best of the best? Who is studying this? Anyone?)

    Santa Clara University: How about our other user group, the librarians? How do we take this back to our institutions and convey this to the reference and cataloging staff who actually drive what we systems people do? Roy (in frequent flyer mode): This is why I go to all these nontechnical librarian meetings and talk about this same stuff (“Gee, Mom, I’m evangelizing as fast as I can!”) For local practice, prototype, *then* try and get people to get it.

    U Rochester: We actually have an anthropologist on staff. Their assignment isn’t to fix the web site, it’s about understanding the research process and the student’s work process. Our usability work is done almost entirely by the reference staff. They take initiative, creativity, ownership of the user interface. Roy: See Charleston Advisor piece by U Rochester. We don’t do very well with the finding task, other than finding a known item, e.g., we don’t address finding “a few good things for writing a paper”

    Roy: Vendors need to abstract the interface layer from the functionality

    Roy: We don’t have Google’s money. But we have people. Open source type collaborative effort needed, address these problems systemically rather than each at the level of our local libraries.

  4. I came to this site after searching what others were saying about Googlezon. I found the googlezon presentation by listening to the Brewster Kahle presentation on ITConversations on Universal access to all knowledge:

    I’m not a librarian, and I didn’t attend Roy’s talk. I just stumbled here from the wider web. It’s probably not entirely kosher, therefore, for me to get up on a soapbox; but I’m going to anyway, with apologies in advance.

    I would argue that there is a quantum mindshift that is occuring right now, and the biggest bottleneck is the paradigm inside of which we are operating. Paradigms have a very nasty habit of being invisible when viewed from the inside (kind of like dreams; in both cases, it takes a significant amount of mental labor to become aware of the boundaries). I would like to make a couple of observations that may bring the boundary of the current predominant paradigm into focus a bit.

    People are outgrowing the need for librarians. Ironically, the job description is morphing into something like: obsolete yourself as quickly and efficiently as possible, and then to reinvent what you do at a higher level. The growing demand for information will no longer make it tolerable to stand in line for information, or to explain my issue to a human being before getting an answer. Roy’s maxim above, that people like to find more than they like to search doens’t even quite go far enough. People like much more than to find. In the same way that searching is just the prerequisite to finding, finding is just the prerequisite to contributing. People ache to contribute, and they are doing so with folksonomies, and wikis, and applications for building applications that will soon do everything from indexing the worlds knowledge to solving unheard of problems (see

    Our linear solutions for solving large scale problems are no longer agile enough to accomplish the task before us. We are shedding the skin of the current paradigm. The best we can do is to let go of it, and embrace the omniarchy of multi-paradigmatic navigation.

    The population is becoming empowered and situated to start making most conventional jobs obsolete. We are used to thinking of people as needing the help of an expert to do make real headway on any significant task. Most hierarchies are set up to concretize the expertise of individuals. These silos are to restrictive for the kind of collaboration that is striving to be born. Rather than looking at division of labor, we should start looking at multiplication of labor. Rather than thinking of ways in which you can more efficiently give people access to your expertise, learn how to hand them your expertise so that you aren’t part of the bottleneck between them and their contribution.

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