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

Encyclopedia Britannica 3.0

   March 18th, 2010 Brian Herzog

A couple years ago, Encyclopedia Britannica was on an anti-Wikipedia kick, fearing, I think, that this would be the fate of print encyclopedias:

Britannica Broom

I'm happy (and not surprised) to report this didn't happen. I believe the same will prove true with the notion of ebooks making print books obsolete. This is a big world, and things have a way of finding their own niche. Radio lives on despite television (and movies and computers), pencils live on despite pens, candles live on despite electricity, bicycles live on despite cars, etc.

Many of the books I own are older than I am, and I'm sure they'll still be around (and in use) after I'm gone.


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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

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