“We don’t need books/libraries, everything is on the Internet.” -a dude who has no idea what he is talking about.
Let’s talk about Google (which some ill-informed people believe to be the Internet) and information as a commodity.
First, it helps to understand how Google, as a search engine works. Google is a business, driven by profit just like Walmart, Amazon, Apple, etc. They exist to make money. How do they make money? By directing users of their service to sponsors and advertisements.
Google, as a business in America, has every right to make money off their users. I like Google, I like Amazon. However, it is completely naïve to believe that Google will subvert their ability to turn a profit to place the best interests of their users above money. They have employees who need to be paid and shareholders who demand a return on their investments.
Now, on to how Google works. Google is not the Internet. The Internet is far, far more expansive than Google. Google indexes websites by using spiders to crawl the Internet and find web pages to add to that index (an estimated 60 trillion web pages exist). Google then searches its own index and shows those results to the user.
How does Google decide what to show you on its result list? Google has an algorithm, a system based on specific factors to evaluate a web page before it shows you the link. Those factors include your geographic region, what people in that region are searching, keywords on the page, and web page “quality.” Over 200 partially unknown factors affect its current algorithm.
While Google typically can satisfy a casual search, far too often it can also suppress or promote insufficient resources based on those algorithm factors. Due to its secretive nature there is also an inability to understand how potential conflicts of interest might be affecting their algorithm.
Let’s move on to that whole idea of information being a commodity.
Google accepts sponsors and advertisements and blends those webpages in with their search results because they make money when their users click on those links. That information, contained in those sponsored links, those advertised links, is not free, it’s not democratic, it’s the capitalist funneling of information onto your screen. It’s another example of how money can influence our daily thoughts and our understanding of the world around us.
Again, this is not necessarily a bad thing. It is definitely a reason to not blindly trust Google and not teach our children and students to blindly trust Google (oh, just google it) or any other search engine.
So, if Google isn’t the God of information delivery, what do we do? Throw out the whole computer?
Learning how to interact with information itself is the solution to how we find our information.
Understanding information as something that is worth money. And that those who can get that information into consumer hands are paid to do so.
Now, libraries and librarians are not immune to the concept of conflicting interests. Libraries employ workers who need a paycheck to survive, the same as Google employees (granted the library employees make far, far, far less). Library workers may have their own conflicts of interest, their own implicit biases that affect the quality of the information they lead patrons to. Libraries may have the potential to censor the information going on their shelves and provided through their online presence.
However, most libraries are funded in some way, shape, or form by tax dollars, at the local, state, and even federal level. The presence of tax dollars in any institution has a standardizing effect on the services and quality of service provided. Unlike Google, most libraries do not make a profit. In fact, many libraries are moving to eliminate late fines and may only charge for lost item replacement. In short, Google has made many a rich man, libraries have never made librarians rich, nor should they.
Is everything really on the Internet, even if Google where to have the entire Internet in their index? No, of course not. Books are still being published, magazines, journals, and newspapers are still being published, many without digital editions. And a great percentage of online content is certainly not free and requires subscriptions, very, very expensive subscriptions to access.
Libraries, through tax dollars (and in academic libraries, institutional budgets) have buying power to purchase access to digital content individuals could never afford or justify to buy on their own. Libraries negotiate contracts with publications and companies so their patrons can access this content under the libraries’ subscription. This can be a particular boon for accessing academic content, the price of academic and scholarly journals having spiked in recent years.
(A note on open access scholarly content: open access is a fantastic initiative that is gaining traction, particularly thanks to libraries, you’re welcome, but it is still lacking in many subjects and many authorities.)
Independent bookstores have recently gotten a boost in the public view, especially locally where the opening of new bookstores is generally seen a good thing, and it is, they should be supported. How can we applaud the independent bookstore and continually denigrate the library? How can we claim to love authors and stories and simultaneously claim the library has no value and the books on their shelves are useless? How can people harbor such contradictory feelings towards the written word and the institutions tasked with preserving an intellectual record?
Typically, this comes down to power differentials and money. But the point is, you can’t love the book and hate the collecting of books. You can’t love the book seller and hate the information facilitator.
One more thing, and I will shut up. In this theoretical world, where every possible piece of information is available on Google and where Google is trustworthy enough to not manipulate your search results in their financial interests, what about people who don’t have internet access 24/7? What about people who can’t afford an internet connection in their home, gas to access a computer everyday? What about isolated rural regions where the internet is either unavailable or insufficient to access increasingly media heavy web content? What about their right and need to access information?
It is a mark of an incredibly privileged and in many ways ignorant individual to believe all people have the same abilities and access.
This is not a simple subject and can be broken down in much more complex detail, and has been in online articles, print books, videos, conference proceedings, on the floor of Congress itself. I won’t flatter myself that I have closed the door on the subject in any significant way. I hope I have at least enlightened some of you to the importance of providing a variety of information conduits, including the printed book and those much harangued libraries and librarians, who contrary to popular belief are not living high on the hog.