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12 Nov 2008 / Julie

ReferenceExtract: missing the point

Have you heard of ReferenceExtract yet? It’s the new project of Syracuse University (Dave Lankes) and OCLC funded by a $100,000 grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

“Reference Extract is envisioned as a web search engine, like Google, Yahoo and MSN. However, unlike other search engines, Reference Extracts will be built for maximum credibility by relying on the expertise and credibility judgments of librarians from around the globe. Users will enter a search term and get results weighted towards sites most often referred to by librarians at institutions such as the Library of Congress, the University of Washington, the State of Maryland, and over 1,400 libraries worldwide. This grant will support planning for Reference Extract and building the foundation necessary to implement it as a large-scale, general user service.”

I’ve heard Dave Lankes speak on many occasions about Participatory Librarianship, the library as Conversation, and I think this vision of Reference Extract is the wrong thing for libraries to be spending their time on.

Lankes himself has said that “Education and learning will be the core of library service.” I wholeheartedly agree with that. So how is it, Dave, that another search engine, no matter what it claims to do, or how it’s results are weighted, will help the education and learning of human beings?

Lankes also says, “the library as place will continue to play an important, but different role, in libraries.” And “the library will become much more of a trusted community space with ample opportunities for learning and discourse.”

Where in those futures of libraries does another faceless search engine come to play?

Where is the website or software that lets me have conversations around learning? Where is the physical and/or online space that lets me bring people into my learning, move items and concepts around to create a higher sense of understanding, knowledge, and wisdom? Where is the learning?

Where is the learning in entering search terms and getting a list of results? Or answers? If a search engine gives me results, even if Reference Extract gives me answers, where is the context? Where is my thought process around ideas? Where do i fit in? Where, also, do others, all those countless other producers of knowledge, data, and other objects-that-come-from-human-brains fit in? Where is all that?

The world does not need another search engine. The world certainly does not need a librarian search engine. Librarians are having a hard enough time ridding themselves of their stuffy, old school, book-laden stereotype, we don’t need another thing that lables us as behind the curve. Search engines are so 2000.

Joe Janes (and many others) have said we shouldn’t try to beat Google at their game. We simply can’t be faster or give more than Google. I agree. I don’t necessarily think Reference Extract is trying to beat Google at their game, but i think we’re missing a huge opportunity here. Google is about no context, fast, and “good enough.” So if libraries need to focus on

If we’re going to be on the cutting edge, why don’t we actually be ON THE CUTTING EDGE? Why don’t we begin to create the learning spaces where people can learn? Where people can have conversations around learning?

Google is not our competitor. Search engines aren’t killing our business, they’re helping us refine it.  No longer do we need to answer the “ready reference” questions like “whats the capital of…” and “what’s the phone number for…” I bet most of the librarians out there would agree that those questions aren’t worthy of their degrees or training. We provide the hard stuff. The research stuff. The HUMAN CONNECTION stuff. Libraries and librarians are about people. We’re about facilitating the learning, which YES, includes making sure people have credible information to use to build their structures of understanding, but it’s much more than that. Credible information is nothing without some understanding, context, and conversations.

I am interested to see where Reference Extract will go and i do commend the “credibility” angle, but right now, i think they’re on the wrong path. I hope that “credibility engine” isn’t where they stop. There is so much more potential that needs to be tapped. And we need to be the ones to tap it first. It will be the first step in redefining our profession and how we want to exist in the world.

Update: I’ve had a conversation with Dave and have new thoughts on RefEx.

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