BackTalk: Nice Infomercial, Google

By Steven J. Bell

Being an early riser, I was in my American Library Association conference hotel lobby waiting for the café to open for breakfast. As I waited, the ever-present television monitor was tuned to an infomercial for a new product that, according to the spokesperson, simply made every other competing product obsolete. Pretty standard fare for an infomercial, I suppose. Later in the day, as I trolled the exhibit hall at the Morial Convention Center in New Orleans, I stopped by Google's gargantuan booth and stepped into the Google Zone.

Before the conference, Google had announced it would make a documentary-style movie featuring librarians sharing stories about how they had used Google to assist patrons successfully. As promised, Google's librarian movie was prominently displayed across multiple monitors. As I watched librarians sing Google's praises, the only difference I could discern between the infomercial I'd seen that morning and the Google librarian movie was that no Google huckster popped up at the end to give us the sales pitch: 'Hey folks! If Google is good enough for these librarians, just think what it can do for you!' But then Google didn't need a huckster to sell its product. We did the job for them.

Act now!

Google's movie features four librarians talking about three Google products: web search, book search, and Google Earth. It is a professional-looking movie and certainly shows librarians from a variety of settings in ways that counter traditional stereotypes.

However, none of the Google uses promoted in the vignettes are so novel as to provide any great revelations about what Google can do for librarians. After all, what librarian needs to be informed that Google is a great search engine for helping sixth graders find transcripts of TV shows? With an infomercial, I can quickly ascertain the target audience. But just who did Google have in mind when it created this program? A Google booth attendant told me the movie would be added to Google Video and that it might be on display at other professional conferences, leading me to believe that Google would eventually use this movie to promote its product to the masses.

For me, that dramatically shifts the consequences of having librarians shill for Google. Used as a promotional tool for the general populace, i.e., our patrons, the movie portrays librarians as unabashed promoters of Google as the one and only best discovery tool, when our top priority should be to promote to our communities the incredible range of information options from which they may choose. In that sense, Google's library movie could do both our profession and our constituents a disservice.

Diversity or Google-centricity

I know some of my detractors will say, 'Hey, you old curmudgeon, we librarians need all the good publicity we can get, and if Google is willing to show us as smart, up-to-date Internet-savvy experts, so be it.' I'll admit good PR for the profession is important. But can't we and our associations do this better than Google?

As a profession, we must champion the idea of resource diversity, not Google-centricity. We should focus our promotional efforts with regard to search resources on two planes. First, emphasize the importance of resource diversity, create awareness of the full range of information options, and give our communities the ability to appropriately match resources to their information needs.

Second, we must emphasize the local level. Google is a universal body of information that may or may not reflect the specific needs of your users. We, not Google, know what those specific needs are. Academic librarians, for example, know how their students can achieve research success. Public librarians can similarly focus on local information needs, needs that Google cannot address.

A Gates production?

Maybe we should ask Bill Gates to sponsor a different kind of movie, one that promotes libraries and librarians and all the good we do for our communities. I'm aware that neither Microsoft nor Google has the best interests of librarians at heart when they decide what will most please their shareholders, but the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation gives public libraries vast resources to benefit our communities. Google gives us a slick infomercial.

I'm saddened that my library colleagues facilitated the latter. Perhaps they thought their participation would benefit the profession. However, we must carefully think through the cascading consequences of our actions when dealing with corporate entities like Google. There will be times, as the Google Book Search project demonstrates, when there are mutual benefits to cooperation. Selling out one's professional integrity to star in a Google infomercial is, unfortunately, not one of them.

Author Information
Steven J. Bell is Director of the Paul J. Gutman Library, Philadelphia University.

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