Martha M. Yee: Will The Response Of The Library Profession To The Internet Be Self-Immolation?

Yee, M. M. (n.d.). Will The Response Of The Library Profession To The Internet Be Self-Immolation? Special Libraries Cataloguing, Inc.

All this because some research studies show that undergraduates prefer to use Amazon.com and Google rather than libraries and their catalogs. … The excuse used, the preference on the part of undergraduates for quick answers, is nothing new. Undergraduates have always tended to over-use ready reference sources

Yee seems to think that belittling a position is the same as rebutting it.  It is a profound mistake to minimize the internet by simply categorizing it as “ready reference.”  The net is an unparalleled source of quick information, of course, but it’s also a far, far more vast domain than Yee’s dismissive sentence would imply.  The internet runs the full gamut, from “ready reference” to online periodicals to serious scholarship to raw data.

I could be wrong, but I suspect that the preference for “Amazon.com and Google” and the like over catalogs is not so much split between undergrads and more advanced scholar, per se, but between younger people and their elders.  As internet-native generations become scholars and older generations depart, which way will the trend go?  Will libraries stay ahead of the curve?

Google and Amazon.com limit human intervention for information organization as much as possible in order to maximize profits.

Also because it’s the only way to scale to the enormity of the internet.

Computers are dumb machines. They cannot reason or make connections that a 2-year-old could make. The only logic available to a computer is based on either word counting or counting the number of times users gain access to a particular URL, the bases for their allegedly sophisticated search and display algorithms. A computer cannot discover broader and narrower term relationships, part-whole relationships, work-edition relationships, variant term or name relationships (the synonym or variant name or title problem), or the homonym problem in which the same string of letters means different concepts or refers to different authors or different works. In other words, a computer, by itself, cannot carry out the functions of a catalog.

Almost every word of this passage is either dated or just plain wrong.  Google’s “allegedly sophisticated search and display algorithms” factor in more than 200 signals, one of which, PageRank considers “more than 500 million variables and 2 billion terms.”  By analyzing information like context and user behavior, Google addresses every example Yee throws out to some extent, including “the homonym problem:” Wired reports that “Google’s engine learns which words are synonyms.”

A computer, by itself, can’t do anything (except consume Watts.)  Humans can put computers to use to do incredible things.  Computers can’t yet even come close to replicating human intelligence in almost any area but it’s a mistake to forget that computers are capable of things that no human can do.  For example, humans can’t hope to catalog more than an infinitesimal portion of the internet to any reasonable standard, unless they are aided by some sort of automated, computer-assisted tool.

Thomas Mann, the great reference librarian, has written a wonderful book published by Oxford University Press that introduces scholars and researchers to LCSH and the LC classification so that they can do more effective and efficient research in libraries. He tells the story of searching for his book in Amazon.com and being told “Readers interested in book were also interested in Thus spake Zarathustra and Death in Venice.”

That Yee find’s Amazon’s connections laughable in this case doesn’t make them false.  Amazon’s algorithm didn’t make those links up–users who searched for, looked at, or purchased Mann’s book were also interested in those other two books.  That might not be useful information to the user, but calling attention to one trivial example doesn’t invalidate the fact that Amazon’s recommendations are often extremely useful.  Again, Yee substitutes sarcasm and mischaracterization for actual argument.


I agree with Yee that ceding organization of information to Google is dangerous–the Internet and the market are too fickle for libraries to tie themselves to any one mast.  But spurning the lessons Google can offer libraries is nonsensible and, I’d say, akin to embracing  Luddism (I don’t throw that term around lightly, but Yee acknowledges Michael Gorman’s assistance with her response, and I have no problem laying that epithet on him.)

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