or, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Fear and Loathing at a Public Library Reference Desk

New Google Feature?

   March 6th, 2008 Brian Herzog

U.S. Mint SearchWhen I use Google to find information, I often use the "site" limiter to improve the returns.

For instance, when looking for information on the new economic stimulus tax rebate thing, a search for "tax rebate site:irs.gov" gives much more direct information than does just searching for "tax rebate." Which is great if you know the domain to which you'd like to limit your search, but yesterday, I didn't.

Someone was looking for information on the James Madison dollar coin, and the U.S. Mint website seemed the most logical place to look for it. However, I didn't know the Mint's domain name. So before my usual site-specific search, I first searched for "us mint" to get the domain, and then I was going to run a second search limited to that domain.

But Google is one step ahead of me (I don't know if this is a new feature or if I just never noticed it before): my search for U.S. Mint returned the Mint's website as the first result, and the listing included a site search built right in to the search result (see picture).

Neat. And it saves me a step. Searching there for "james madison dollar" gave exactly what the patron was looking for as the first result.

I'm generally skeptical of Google as a company for hording private data, but they do have smart people working there.

Tags: , , , , , , ,

Book Review Search

   August 9th, 2007 Brian Herzog

Google Custom SearchI've been trying for awhile to come up with a good way to use Google's Custom Search, and I think I found one.

I created a search for online book reviews. It can be a reader's advisory tool, help librarians with selection, or aid book groups in looking for information on their current selection. Give it a try:

Search for Book Reviews
Google Custom Search
(hint: enclose book titles in quotes to improve results; i.e.: "Cat's Cradle")

Despite my Very Large Skepticism of Google in general, the tool itself is very easy to set up and is potentially extremely useful (especially for librarians). Basically, it lets you limit searching to a select group of websites - in this case, book review websites. In fact, my biggest problem was in choosing which websites to include in the search (see below for my initial list).

One complaint I do have is that I can't control how included websites are ranked. For instance, I included amazon.com on the list, because it has a variety of reviews. In almost every search amazon.com shows up first. I would rather see them ranked below the non-commercial review websites, but Google's search algorithm always puts amazon.com on top [update: see comments below].

So, let me know what you think, and which very obvious websites I forgot to add. I've also embedded this search in my Library's Reading Room web pages, and plan on maintaining it as a readers advisory tool.

Thanks to Kate for pointing out this tool in the first place.

List of domains searched:

book, book review, book review search, book reviews, books, google, google custom search, library, public libraries, public library, reader advisory, readers advisory, review, reviews

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

New “Wikipedia Bad!” Propaganda, from Britannica

   June 22nd, 2007 Brian Herzog

I (and I imagine a lot of other people) received a mass-marketing email from an Encyclopedia Britannica sales rep this week. It continues to fan the flames Michael Gorman lit last week.

I was surprised to get this email, considering my library doesn't subscribe to Britannica online. I generally automatically delete unsolicited sales pitches like this, but since Britannica is embroiled in this Web 2.0 flap, I thought I'd read it - and it certainly turned out to be interesting:

Subject: Don't contribute to the "hive mind"
To: McIntosh, Robert ([email protected])
From: McIntosh, Robert ([email protected])
Date: 6/20/07

Michael Gorman (2005-2006 president of the American Library Association) writes that the Internet's "solid and reputable sources," many of them fee-based, are lost in the glut of link-rich free sources that search engines generally return. Until such reputable and reliable information becomes accessible, he writes, "we may well be raising a generation of screen potatoes who, blinded by speed and made lazy by convenience, are ignorant of the knowledge they will never acquire and the rich world of learning that search engines cannot currently deliver to them." Gorman fears that we are moving away from an encyclopedia model of knowledge, which he describes as "the product of many minds," to a Wikipedia one, the product of a "hive mind."

Google has actually attempted to help with this by introducing a new feature called "Subscribed Links". See this recent announcement:

Hello All:

Google has a new feature called "Subscribed Links" that allows users to customize Google search results by automatically positioning results from trusted sites, such as Britannica, at the top of their search results page.

Because it is very new feature, not many people are aware of it and there are still a relatively small number of sites that are participating at this point. Google provides a directory of sites users can choose to add links from, and Google ranks the sites in this directory based on their popularity. We feel Britannica's broad topic coverage and reputation uniquely position us to be one of the top ranked sites in this directory.

I encourage all of you to sign up for Britannica's customized search on Google to help us successfully launch this initiative.

You can follow the link below to sign up with Google now.


Of coarse this solution only helps when you do subscribe to a "trusted site". For those libraries that do, you'll be amazed by the use of this feature. For those libraries that don't, you truly need to do better for your patron's and not contribute to the "hive mind". Call or write to find out just how affordable it can be, and so that you too can be part of the solution.

Thank You,

Bob McIntosh
Account Executive
Encyclopædia Britannica
[email protected]
800-621-3900 ext 7099

I must say, I do agree with the part that says "...we may well be raising a generation...who, blinded by speed and made lazy by convenience, are ignorant of the knowledge they will never acquire..." This is something that is a threat to libraries in general, and something I work every day to counter - showing patrons how to find information in books and our subscription databases, rather than just the first websites that pop up using Google.

But I do take issue with the rest of this fear-based aggressive sales tactic.

First of all is the "hive mind" comment. The whole message seems to be saying "don't work together, or think for yourself. Just do what we say. We're the experts." I disagree with this on many levels.

Second, while this particular subscribed links program of Google's is new, the idea of highlighting "preferred" links is not. Up until now, though, those listings with special status were always paid for, or "sponsored," which often made them much less helpful.

But this new program apparently lets the user decide which trusted websites they want showing up first in their search results. That's a great idea - unless, of course, the user is "blind," "lazy," and "ignorant of knowledge," and choose a site like Wikipedia instead of Britannica (as, um, Google chose to do on their example screen).

And if Google is letting users choose which websites they want showing up first, how does this address the "ignorant of the knowledge they will never acquire and the rich world of learning that search engines cannot currently deliver" problem? If I limit myself to what I already know and use, then the power of a search engine that looks at everything is kind of stunted.

Also, the way this email reads kind of implies that this is a choice that libraries can make. But it doesn't seem to be - it seems like a single user needs to go in, set up an account, and then choose their trusted websites. For public computers in a library, we'd either have to never delete the Google cookie, which means eliminating patron privacy, or log into Google every time we restarted the computers. Neither of which I'm willing to do.

So while this is a cool little end-user tool, and one we could explain to patrons and encourage them to use, it is still up to them to choose to use it.

With that in mind, I thirdly take issue with the last paragraph of the email - the one that implies that I am a bad librarian and not doing my job if I don't force patrons to use the Britannica website. If this is a user-activated tool, it doesn't matter how "affordable" (free?) it is, because this isn't a tool I can push on them. I haven't seen this tool in action, but it seems that Britannica's concept of it is different that what is presented by Google.

And, really, I hate to be petty, especially about something like a spelling error, but it find it bad form to tout yourself as a reliable and authoritative resource when you mistakenly use "of coarse" instead of "of course." Now I know I make little mistakes like this, but I also do not fancy myself a comprehensive, infallible authority. I understand that some resources are good for some things, while others are good for other things. Trying to force a one-resource-answers-all solution is, well, rather "coarse."

britannica, encyclopedia britannica, google, libraries, library, michael gorman, subscribed links, trusted sites, web 2.0

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Reference Question of the Week – 5/20

   May 26th, 2007 Brian Herzog

Better than any question I got this week were two blog posts I read. The first is just funny, and the second might also be a tool to help people.

The First comes from librarian.net, about an reference question gone awry due to spell check (slight warning: potty library humor involved).

The Second comes from Google's Librarian Central, with a story about how their web-based translator helped a patron (for who English was not their first language) have better access to English-language web pages. I usually use Alta Vista's translator Babel Fish (because it's been around awhile and for the Douglas Adams connection [note: Towel Day was yesterday]), but it is nice to have a second source for things. Even if it is Google.

alta vista, babel fish, google, google translate, libraries, library, public libraries, public library, reference, reference question, spell check, translation, translator

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Past Search Terms, and the Universal Digital Library

   May 10th, 2007 Brian Herzog

Today I present two short, mostly unrelated topics that came up recently:

Topic One
I was just looking at the stats for visitors to my website this week. One statistic I find particularly interesting are the keywords people searched with that lead them to my website. I will often then perform those same searches, just to see where I rank, and what websites also rank for that keyword.

Usually, keyword searches are things like 30 search tips in 45 minutes, BPL eCards, or something else I've recently posted about. But one caught by eye - I'm happy to report that I currently make the second page of Google search matches for the phrase "library sex."

Topic Two
A post to the Maine Libraries listserv yesterday pointed to an article titled "Myth of the Universal Digital Library." It is a pretty quick read, and provides three reasons why projects like Google's book digitization will never be able to completely digitize the entirety of collected human knowledge. Not that we still couldn't benefit greatly from efforts in that direction, but the article does point out some significant roadblocks.
digitization, google, knowledge, rankings, search ranking, search terms, universal digital library

Tags: , , , , , ,

Women in (and out of) Uniform

   February 20th, 2007 Brian Herzog

Google search suggestion for Sgt. Michelle Manhart A patron came into the library last week, looking for news stories about a woman in the Air Force who got into trouble for posing for Playboy. She remembered the woman's name, Sgt. Michelle Manhart, and asked if I could check a news website to get more information.

I went out to Google News and typed in "Sgt. Michelle Manhart." As expected, a few news stories did show.

But, I was surprised to see Google's "Did you mean" feature asking if I meant to search for "Sgt. Michael Manhart." I almost ignored it, thinking it was suggesting an alternate spelling of the female sergeant's name, but then noticed it was instead substituting the male Michael for the female Michelle.

Google News screen capture, 2/15/07

Odd, I thought. I clicked on the link, wondering if Google's algorithm would do the same thing (in reverse) if I searched for "Sgt. Michael Manhart" - ask if I meant Sgt. Michelle Manhart.

But surprisingly, it didn't. It just showed search matches for Michael (which actually were all news stories about Michelle).

Google News screen capture, 2/15/07

So then I wondered if it was the "Sgt." part of the search that was confusing it. Could Google's search algorithm really be sexist? Would it see the "Sgt." part and "think" that only men are Sergeants?

So I tried a search for just "Michelle Manhart," expecting Google to offer a "Did you mean" for "Michael Manhart". But it didn't, and just showed the matching news stories.

Google News screen capture, 2/15/07

I'm sure this isn't intentional sexism on Google's part, as this "Did you mean" algorithm is just supposed to reflect prevalent search patterns. But how ingrained must a concept be for software like this to pick up on it - and what does that say about how far our society has actually progressed?

google, google news, michell manhart, search, search algorithm, sexism

Tags: , , , , ,