Adapted from a chapter that Peter Morville wrote for Library 2020, a book edited by Joseph Janes and published by Rowman & Littlefield (in press).
The library in 2020 is the last bastion of truth. Sure, you can search yottabytes of free data by simply batting an eyelash. But it’s dangerous to believe what you see through the iGlass lens. As you learned the hard way back in the Facebook era, if you’re not paying for it, you are the product. That research study about the safety and efficacy of Lipitor Lollipops™ was sponsored by a subsidiary of a subsidiary of Pfizer. That consultant you almost hired wrote his own customer reviews. And while you can’t tell for sure because the algorithms are opaque, it sure seems like the first page of web search is pay-to-play. You routinely skip past the top ten results.
Unfortunately, this state of corruption isn’t limited to the Web. Politicians are in the pocket of lobbyists. Doctors push pills for profit. Teachers and bank clerks work on commission. And journalists? Well, they don’t really exist. And neither does evolution, climate change, or Newton’s Law of Gravity.
Polarization was solved by personalization. Now, people learn their own truths. We should have known back in 2015, when the ratio of adults who believe “God created humans in their present form within the last 10,000 years” hit 51 percent, that we had passed a tipping point. At least we’re not burning witches at the stake, except in Texas, which doesn’t really count.
The good news is we still have the library. In a world that won’t stop spinning, it’s the one place you can go for truth. Their articles, books, and databases are mostly ad-free. And librarians are the folks you can trust. Is it safe to ride your bicycle to work? Do vegans live longer? Which refrigerator has the best privacy controls? And why does your self-driving car sometimes take the long route home? Librarians help you find the best answers. As a result, you make informed decisions, and over time all this learning adds up to improve not only your quality of life, but your longevity as well.
The bad news is nobody uses the library anymore. Most folks are too busy or too lazy to venture beyond the fast food of the free Web. Plus, they have absolutely no idea what they’re missing. While many schools and colleges make half-hearted attempts to integrate information literacy into their curricula, only the best students learn much from these tutorials. If their brains fail to explode when the librarian begins speaking in Boolean, their patience surely runs out when told they must know, before they start to search, which database (of dozens, each with unique interfaces and query languages) contains the answer to their question.
It didn’t have to be this way. There was a time, not so long ago, when librarians had the chance to change the future. People’s infatuation with Google had begun to ebb. They were hungry for something better. If libraries had offered a good alternative – an integrated search and discovery tool that enabled fast, easy access to popular content, scientific research, and scholarly sources – we might have moved forward, not back. We almost did.
Those “web-scale discovery tools” with single search boxes, faceted navigation interfaces, and aggregated indexes brought us so close to success. But many of the older, more powerful faculty and librarians resisted this “dumbing down.” They preferred the native database interfaces because only they knew how to use them. And, thanks to the squabbling of database vendors and the greed of journal publishers, seamless access to full text content remained a mirage. There were a few brilliant open discovery projects at the crossroads of open source and open access, but librarians lacked the money, power, and resolve to scale and sustain these systems.