Competing in a Google world

How can the library compete in a world where the reflex reaction to any query that starts with 'who, what, when, where' is 'Google it!'? What is it that librarians need to do to ensure survival in this world? What can librarians do to define the difference and enrich the experience of information seeking and delivery?


The pervasive nature of search engines such as Google and Yahoo leads many of us in the information industry to question how we can compete. 'Google' itself is not only a noun; it's a verb. How many times in a working day do you hear a colleague, a student, a teacher or a friend suggest 'Google it!' Wouldn't it be wonderful if 'OPAC it!' was the response? It doesn't have the same ring though, does it?

As librarians, we have remained wedded to some fairly user un-friendly jargon. Beyond the jargon, we have held firmly to a belief that we know we are the experts in information seeking and delivery. We have some strong advocates and allies, but we've made little impact in marketing and selling this truth to our users who are awash in a world of information and choices. For the Google Generation, what is the place of the library catalogue?

In the days before automated library systems - the days of card catalogues, weighty reference tomes, kardex and mysterious ILL (Inter Library Loan) forms - reference librarians would take their rostered turn on the Information Desk and wait for the next information seeker to come along. A request which involved finding a book, a citation, a photocopied page or perhaps a paid dial-up search of a database would be accurately clarified and delivered. Now a Google search can provide all of these results without any professional involvement from library staff - fast, free, at any time of the day or night. Furthermore, the Google Generation feels more at home in cyberspace than in library space.

Perceptions of library users

The Online Computer Library Centre (OCLC) report Perceptions of Libraries and Information Resources (2005) - refer to Connections 57 (p 2) - describes several recurring themes:

  • users are not aware of the electronic resources libraries make freely available
  • users are as comfortable using the Internet to source information as library sources
  • the library brand, while trusted and recognised, is outdated.

Overall, more respondents to the OCLC commissioned survey were very satisfied with searches using search engines. 'I do not use it (the library) … it is a good place for research but I think the Internet is better and faster.'

One of the enduring problems faced by libraries and librarians is that of perception - of the profession, the skills, the value. As a profession, we have an ongoing distaste for the s and m words: sales and marketing. Yet, the problem of perception is a perennial one. The services we provide are valuable, professional and specialised; sometimes they are also intangible, unquantifiable and often undervalued. Yet we are accountable for the money that governments and school boards spend and we are accountable to those users who make a choice in using the library and its resources rather than going elsewhere.

What does 'the Internet' do well?

Primarily, the Internet locates and returns free information quickly, seemingly without the need for any training. Results delivered by Google, Yahoo and the like are usually relevant enough to satisfy most queries (93 per cent of the respondents to the OCLC survey agreed that Google provides worthwhile information). If the intention in the search is who, what, when or where, a search engine can deliver an adequate result.

Aside from locating simple information in websites, Google can return results which include pdfs, word documents and spreadsheets. It is moving into spaces that schools, colleges, universities and libraries previously held as their own preserve: for example, Google Book Search, Google Scholar and College Life. It is ubiquitous - Google toolbars download into the browsers we use almost without us knowing. It is using its own technology to track user behaviour to better inform its understandings of its markets. For most users, the fact that Google is primarily an advertising agency is irrelevant or unknown. Nor do most users understand that the ranking of search results can be manipulated by IT professionals who know about search engine optimisation. For the user, it's easy, it's fast and it's always there. It also interprets poor spelling and sometimes seems to translate confused intentions.

Get excited about the challenges of the school environment

So, what is it that librarians and libraries do well and how can we translate this into the services we deliver through our catalogues? There are many challenges in delivering information services in a school - insufficient funding, providing and retaining quality staff, fractured ICT support, lack of professional understanding and support for library staff, competition for limited resources, providing a multipurpose environment and, of course, working with teachers and students and their fluctuating needs and demands.

Yet there are also unique opportunities to target the delivery of services: there is an identifiable community; databases and systems are especially designed to cater for the various needs of the school, staff and students; exciting ventures are taking place among divergent product developers looking for ways to work together; and there is a captive audience of the users that librarians really want to reach in order to build a generation of lifelong learners.

School libraries have the delightful opportunity to take these skills and services to a generation that can multi-task with technology - process numerous incoming and outgoing communication streams while visually scanning graphics and text on a computer screen. We have an adaptable and receptive audience.

OPAC (Online Public Access Catalogue) on the World Wide Web

Library service at your fingertips: libraries must provide online catalogues accessible on the web. The Google generation uses the online environment like oxygen - they are always on it, whether it's for Instant Messaging or downloading music to iPods or searching for a quick answer. The key information resource in the school needs to be available all the time, from wherever the users may be.

Promote your services

The online catalogue plays a key role in linking learners with information which has been specifically selected and provided. In a world overwhelmed with information, the school library is resourced according to the curriculum and with material which has been pre-selected by subject and information specialists and evaluated for relevancy and for appropriate content, language and reading levels. The catalogue points students, teachers and the wider school community to a range of shared and available resources.

All of these skills in library management and information literacy have combined to provide a valuable and targeted resource. But the school community needs to know the resources exist and how to access them. Is there a link to the OPAC on the school website? On the Intranet? Is the OPAC address on all of the school's marketing material?

Promote your skills

Returning quick results in a Google search is easy, but how relevant, appropriate and accurate are they to the question the seeker had in mind? Was the question articulated well enough to satisfy the enquiry? Was the enquirer capable of formulating a good search strategy?

The key skill that librarians have always brought to the discovery process is to elicit the context and improve the quality of the question. Neither skills are available in any search engine or database, but we can bring modern tools (instant messaging, email, virtual reference services) to standard practices.

The school community needs to know there is a specialist in information skills on the staff.

Provide opportunities for interaction

Encourage interaction online. Reading is alive and well and so is publishing. Despite predictions that the Internet and electronic publishing would relegate traditional publishing to niche markets, and that there would be a negative impact on reading, the sale of books has continued to trend upwards and the number of English-language titles published continues to increase.

What has changed is that the Internet has made personal publishing and sharing a collaborative activity. Online social networking spaces are encouraging instantaneous and interactive responses - whether it's sharing an opinion on a blog or contributing a review to Today's youth (and the young at heart) expect to be able to share their opinions on what they are reading, just as they do their photos on You can enable feedback and interactive responses to the library resources via the library website, your school home page or OPAC.

Add value to your resources

Amazon has not succeeded simply because it is online, but because it has added additional interest and value with book covers, tagging, recommendations, reviews and links. has raised consumer expectations - resources and information can be displayed in richer ways than flat, one-dimensional textual descriptions.

An easy way to capture enrichment data for library resources is via the integration your ILS vendor may provide with third party services.

Bring your resources and services to the user

Technologies now provide many ways to automate the delivery of information from the online catalogue out to the user and give more ability to the user to manage his or her own use of resources.

Library users should be able to manage their loans and requests from the online catalogue. Make sure staff and students know how to log in to the online catalogue and can reserve a resource, drop a reservation, renew an item, view their loans and request information online.

Provide an automated current awareness service. Setting up user profiles to match library resources with user interests and providing automatic notification from the library catalogue will increase the use of your collection, ensure staff and students are well informed about the library and school collections, and raise the profile of the library and its services.

Inform yourself about the technology - podcasting, blogs, streaming - and about online social networking places such as MySpace, Facebook, YouTube. Connections 59 and Connections 60 contain articles explaining some of these technologies. These are the technologies and spaces of choice for the online generation. Think about using the technology to send topical information from the library and the catalogue to the online spaces the generations you are trying to reach inhabit. For an example of a library reaching out in a social networking space, take a look at the video one library has published on YouTube:

Can your library system use RSS? Find an ally in the school to assist you. Ask your library system vendor about what's possible with your ILS.

Look for opportunities for stitching information and service delivery together

Making your online catalogue an information repository for the whole school takes on a new meaning if documents such as teaching plans, exemplars, exam papers and school policies can be made available through the online catalogue. They no longer need to reside within one database or on one server.

Beyond document retrieval and searching, there is growing interest in integrating library resources with campus portals, course management systems and e-learning initiatives. As one of the key information literacy specialists in the school, make sure you are part of the discussion about making catalogue data available through other products and other products available through the OPAC.

Make searching across resources easy

The need to provide a way to view and access resources which are sourced or stored in different and separate systems and databases and incorporate different material types has been challenging institutions, librarians and vendors for many years. A familiar interface, a seamless delivery, easy and unrestricted access … these are the factors which enhance the user experience.

The OCLC Perceptions report quotes one 21-year-old: 'Make a way to search through all of the databases with one search engine, instead of having to search each database individually'. In New Zealand, all schools currently have free access to 19 online databases. It is a fabulous resource but anecdotal feedback suggests the databases are underutilised and underpromoted within schools. Federated searching can provide one interface and delivery point. This solution alleviates the immediate need - not only for students, but also for library staff - to understand and remember the details of each database.

Electronic reference tracking

In a school library where you are guaranteed personal interaction with your users and you know you will receive repeated requests for information and answers, consider using an e-reference tracking system which integrates with your online catalogue. This way you can record your reference questions, the sources used to answer them, comments from your users and also make the results searchable by your users.

Provide good data and use standards-based systems

Remember the old saying of 'garbage in, garbage out'? The quality of the data in library catalogues has always been a critical factor in the successful fulfilment of user needs. It is also critical in a time when vendors are exploring the possibilities of delivering information through each other's interfaces.

Continuing to source your data records through SCIS ensures you are collecting data that has been catalogued to international standards and is of a consistent quality. Using an integrated library system which adheres to library and IT standards ensures a good basis for integration and interoperability with other products and services in the future.

It's about adapting to the user

We have entered a period where there are many opportunities for product vendors and library staff to explore and enhance the delivery of library resources. If we regard the likes of Google as the competition, I fear we are missing the point and we'll also lose the battle. The challenge is to use what we know we do best, learn from our users, market ourselves and join in the action.

Catherine Leonard is the Manager of Softlink's operation in New Zealand. She holds a Diploma in Librarianship and an MSc in Information Science. Catherine welcomes any comments and discussion on the challenges facing school libraries. You can contact her at


Perceptions of Libraries and Information Resources : a report to the OCLC membership. Dublin, Ohio; OCLC Online Computer Library Center, Inc, 2005.

Stop worrying about copyrights. Jonathan Enfield on

Perceptions of Libraries and Information Resources : a report to the OCLC membership. Dublin, Ohio; OCLC Online Computer Library Center, Inc, 2005. p. 1-19