For the last time, Google is not our competition in libraries...

There's a very famous Neil Gaiman quote among librarians and lovers of libraries: "Google will bring you back, you know, a hundred thousand answers. A librarian will bring you back the right one."

I found this on Jennie Stolz's Pinterest page. Click the pic to go to there.

I found this on Jennie Stolz's Pinterest page. Click the pic to go to there.

You see it on social media. You hear it used as a soothing balm at library conferences. More than one library has it printed on their floors.

There are various different versions of the quote - often people will attribute Gaiman with having said a million answers from Google, and pretty much no one puts in the 'you know'. In order that I, a librarian, could use the RIGHT quote for this article I...

Well, I Googled it. Obvs.

Because how else would I find it? I don't want to put us as libraries and librarians in competition with Google for loads of reasons, but we still do it a lot. I contributed to a SWOT analysis on libraries in LibFocus and someone put the Gaiman quote in there too:

An excerpt from a crowd-sourced LibFocus article - click the image to read the full thing

An excerpt from a crowd-sourced LibFocus article - click the image to read the full thing

The thing is, most people aren't seeking 'right answers' on Google. They just want basic or general info. Here's what SiegeMedia discovered were the top 15 searches on Google in 2015 in the US, if you exclude brands and porn (the top 5 if you don't exclude them is Gmail, Craiglists, Amazon, Yahoo [why?!] and porn).

Click the pic to read the full article on SeigeMedia

Click the pic to read the full article on SeigeMedia

How many of those have a right answer a librarian could bring back? The weather, obviously - but you'd find that out by Googling it. Perhaps a librarian could find you a more reliable dictionary, that could be a 'right' answer. What's on at the Movies, cheap flights - again we'd at least go online and search, if not specifically Google.

In the UK in 2015 according to Google itself, the top 5 searches were 1) Cilla Black, 2) Lady Colin Campbell, 3) Rugby World Cup, 4) Jeremy Clarkson and 5) Paris. Is there a right answer to 'Cilla Black'? Right answers are not what Google is for. More broadly, people aren't searching Google for things they used to come and find at libraries.

The reason the Gaiman quote includes a 'you know' is this wasn't some grand written statement, it was part of an answer to an interview question he was asked upon becoming honorary chair of National Libaries Week in 2010. The full answer, with the Google part right at the end, can be seen in this video:

What a great quote that whole thing is! Fantastic. He GETS it. This isn't some well-meaning but misguided celeb talking about how much they loved the smell of books as a child in their local library. This is someone who understands how libraries are about social inclusion. I love the full answer. I think Gaiman is brilliant. I just wish we, as a library community, hadn't quite latched onto the Google part of it so much, as the dichotomy isn't helpful.

Also, I don't personally think I can find the 'right' answer in most of the situations I find myself in, even as an academic librarian helping people are who ARE actually after very specific information. Our role is more about helping people find answers for themselves - not in all cases and branches of the profession, but in most - as a couple of people pointed out on Twitter:

Of course this dichotomy isn't somehow Gaiman's fault or exclusive to him, you see it everywhere among librarians. This tweet from Internet Librarian International encapsulates a sentence you hear a lot about libraries and competition:

(It was reflecting something the speaker had said rather than Martin's own opinion.) I find this rhetoric troubling for lots of reasons, many of which I've spoken about before but the idea of Google as competitor just won't go away...

Here are my issues with it:

  1. As discussed above, people don't now use Google for things they previously used libraries for
  2. Google doesn't do what we do. It precisely the human element of libraries that will ensure they endure
  3. If Google IS our competitor then we will lose every battle, forever
  4. Ultimately, to pit libraries against Google is to reduce libraries to their most basic function (provider of information) and indeed the one which IS most easily replaced...
  5. ... and then try and convince people not to replace us with Google by telling them Google is not any good, when in fact - for all the troubling things about Google, and there are many - it IS pretty good at bringing back info of sufficient quality that most people who are non-specialists find it to be excellent for their needs
  6. Related: no one ever won any friends by slagging off something useful (that they themselves use every day)

The fact that Google and the internet more widely has made it so easy for people to access information without needing to physically visit a library is a GOOD thing. So I'd like us all agree to stop trying to make it into us versus them, and focus more on the things we can do to cater for the needs of our users and potential users. They don't need us to find them info on Cilla Black but they DO need us for plenty else. 

Google could find 100,000 things for libraries to do next, but only our communities can find us the right one...

Learning from the Orteig Prize - the sky is the limit for libraries!

It was from this Freakonomics Radio podcast, which I've refered to on this blog before and which provoked a huge number of comments, that I learned about the Orteig Prize. It's a really fascinating story, it inspired the LISNPN competition mentioned in part one of this post, and who knows what else we can learn from it - so bear with me while I go through the events of the early 1920s.

A little history

In 1919, a New York hotelier called Raymond Orteig put up a prize of $25,000 (equivalent to over $300,000 today in pure inflation terms, but actually a lot more in terms of what that money could buy) for the first aviator to fly non-stop from New York to Paris, or the other way around. For the first five years, no one could claim his prize as the technology wasn't advanced enough. But in those five years people worked enormously hard, because that was an enormous amount of money.

Eventually, in 1927, Charles Lindbergh makes the flight successfully, and wins the prize. It took 33.5 hours in a single-engine plane (the Spirit of  St Louis) and was a minor miracle of good fortune allied with supreme skill, but he made it safely to France. Lindbergh was only 25 years old at the time, and he used the massive fame he now enjoyed to promote commercial aviation. He was obviously one of those polymathic people who just operate on a higher plain (no pun intended) than the rest of us - he later became a prize-winning author, an environmentalist (can't of been too many of them at that time), an international explorer and an inventor!

Picture of Charles Lindbergh & Raymond Orteig

This was of course a fantastic achievement, but the existence of the competition catalysed massive progress in the aviation industry by loads of people, not just Lindbergh himself. In fact, $400,000 worth (in old money) of innovation happened from the combined entries to the competition - and Orteig only had to pay out once! The results of this expenditure were immediately quantifiable - the year before Lindbergh's flight, just 6,000 people travelled by air as passengers; 18 months afterwards there was 180,000 commercial passengers. Even in the months remaining in 1927, the year of his flight, applications for pilot's licences tripled and the number of registered aircraft quadrupled.

(Another ramification of the competition was, as you might expect with experimental air travel, a huge loss of human life. Many pilots died failing to win the prize. Hopefully a library equivalent won't place its entrants in such jeopardy...)

The Legacy

Apart from the 30-fold increase in commercial air-travel, which effectively gave birth the multi-billion dollar industry we know today, the prize had another legacy. Inspired by Orteig's competition, Peter Diamandis set up the X Prize Foundation. This offers a more modern prize of $10,000,000 to achieve huge goals such as commercial flight into space - again, far more than $10,000,000 is invested, in total, by all the entrants combined, so the field moves on apace. Not only that, but the Foundation themselves don't put up the prizes! They are funded by organisations and philanthropists, eager to making progress happen.

The LISNPN competition

As I'm sure you've realised, the LISNPN competition is a very (VERY) small-scale attempt to do something similar. We're offering prizes we think people will really value, and will be willing to work hard and innovate in order to have a shot at winning. Although entrants will retain full copyright of their ideas, LISNPN will be able to show-case ALL of them, and hopefully ALL of them should reach a new audience not normally involved with libraries at all. We're only giving out two prizes (again, put up by generous people who want to encourage the enterprise, rather than paid for from the - non-existent - LISNPN coffers) but hopefully the profession will benefit from lots and lots of advocacy efforts.

Are there other things we can do with competitons and libraires?

So is there scope for more library innovation on a much grander scale, adopting the Orteig prize principles? I think there must be. Other bodies must be able to run other competitions, the entries for which could be public-facing and progressive. I'd love to see one around technology in libraries.

And this links to another thing I've often thought, which is that libraries (certainly in the UK) don't appear to be as good at attracting philanthropy as other comparable areas. We need to be something that rich people and foundations think of when they're wondering where to put their money in a charitable way. Perhaps an innovation inspiring competition is a way to achieve this? What do you think?

In the meantime, good luck with the competition if you're entering.

- thewikiman

A competition to benefit everyone in libraries, not just the winners

LISNPN, the New Professionals Network, has just announced it's first ever competition and I am really excited about it.

A scree-grab showing the LISNPN competition blog post

You can read all about it on the network itself, but the short version is this: we want people who have entered the profession in the last decade or so to create a piece of library advocacy. It could be an article, a video, a slide-deck, an essay, a piece of art, a project, a campaign - literally anything that doesn't pre-date the competition. The only criteria is that it gets some pro-library ideas to people who wouldn't normally engage with libraries at all. The idea is to indulge in a bit of stealth advocising - to package up some library advocacy in something so intrinsically awesome that it reaches new audiences. Doesn't even have to be particularly stealthy - just reach new people.

The first prize is a full pass to Umbrella, CILIP's biennial conference which takes place in July this year. We're working with CILIP on this competition so thank you very much to CEO Annie Mauger for agreeing to be part of this - the prize is worth up to £500 (based on what the pass would cost to buy; it'd be slightly cheaper if you are a CILIP member already) and includes refreshments, social activities and the Gala Dinner. Attendance at such a conference is usually out of the reach of New Professionals due to the cost, so we're really hoping the competition sparks loads of interest and is entered by people who would love to attend but couldn't normally. Not only that but there is a second prize of attendance at the New Professionals Conference this year! This has kindly been donated by the Career Development Group. Full details of this year's NPC are still to be decided, but it'll take place in June, somewhere other than London. You can read about last year's conference here to get an idea of what it's all about.

We'd really encourage as many people as possible to enter, whether it will be your first attempts at library advocacy, or if you're a veteran. You can read the full Terms and Conditions on LISNPN. (And thank you muchly to the LISNPN admin team for spending ages with me working those out!)

Apart from the great prize, and it being another step forward for the network, there's another reason I'm thrilled about this. Every single entry should benefit the library community, whether it wins or not. Many competition entries are inward-facing rather than out-ward facing - an essay about why you want to win, only ever seen by the judges, for example. That's fine, but this is different. Because every single entry to this competition will be a little piece of library advocacy, a small effort to raise awareness about the profession and the industry. The beauty of a competition format like this is that one prize inspires multiple efforts - to actually commission 10 or 20 or 50 people to create advocacy would cost a fortune, whereas here we only 'pay out' once, or rather twice as we have a second prize. So lots of innovation is (hopefully) catalysed. When this happened in the air-travel industry, with the Orteig prize in 1927, it moved things on by years in a single leap! Not saying that will happen here, but I'm still excited at the prospects of what we can do.

You can read more about the Orteig Prize and how we can use the method to advance the library profession, in the unofficial part 2 of this blog post, here. It's a really interesting story!

- thewikiman