Friday, June 25, 2004

OCLC Symposium: Cindy Cunningham

Cindy Cunningham was the third speaker in the Symposium, after Cathy De Rosa's opening comments and brief overview of the Scan, and Dan Chudnov's comments on freedom and collaboration.

Cindy has been a very popular speaker in the library field over the years for several reasons. She's been at the heart of some of the most interesting projects in the infosphere, including being the metadata maven for Amazon for six years, and she is a terrific storyteller. Today she talked about the state of "search" in the minds of some of the big search engines. She talked about how companies like Amazon and Google have developed search strategies that are based on using past searches as the basis for predicting what future searchers will want, and by seeking similarities that use context to help determine what the searcher is really after.

She noted that the point of the new search engines is to make finding the information you need as simple as possible. You had to know something about the subject you were pursuing to use the bricks-and-mortar library, but search engines have removed this as a barrier. You can start from any keyword, and in many cases, even if you spell the keyword wrong, you'll get a running start. The search engines do this by impinging just a little on each user's privacy, and for the most part, the users don't mind. They appreciate the convenience, and aren't concerned that their search information is being amalgamated into the larger engine to refine searches for themselves and future users.

Cindy said that libraries have always appealed to diverse audiences with diverse collections, and the more we as librarians knew about our users, the better able we are to serve them. (Parenthetically, as a former reference librarian myself, I always felt this was why a face-to-face reference transaction was usually more successful that one over the phone. I could tell the approximate age of the person, I could tell by his or her body language if what I was saying made sense or if I was headed out to La-La Land, and if the person generally seemed pleased with what was being delivered. None of these cues came over the phone.) Search engines are trying to reproduce this "learning behavior," and they are even trying to build in some of the serendipity experience of browsing the stacks in a well-stocked library. ("If you like this information, maybe you'll like...)

The "search" business is changing constantly. Yahoo has just purchased an Indian search engine company. Amazon has spun off its home grown search capability into a separate company. All the companies in this space are striving to line up content.

The next step will be moving from trying to identify what the user wants to trying to deliver what the search engine wants the individual to want. She pointed up several examples from the commercial world where, all other things being equal, the engine will direct the user to the product which provides the engine with the best financial return. This seemed to surprise some in the audience, although, upon reflection, it's not hard to understand. (Another parenthetical note: When I shop at a supermarket, I know that the end displays aren't there because these are the best values. They are there because the supermarket manager has made a deal with the wholesaler or the producer to put them there. Sometimes these products are what I want, sometimes they aren't. In this way, the web store is no different from the bricks and mortar store. If I want unbiased information, I'll pull out my copy of Consumer Reports.) Cindy mentioned that one of the projects that the search engines are working on is being able to reconcile data from multiple sources to develop the most reliable information possible.

Cindy noted that the physical and virtual worlds are becoming more and more interrelated, and making the bridge between the two is also an ongoing area of concern. One forms a mental map of a virtual space, such as a library layout, and then must translate it to the physical world. This is a cognitive leap that has to be accommodated for users.

Finally, Cindy talked about how, in the first wave of technology, we tried to simply automate all the old library functions, without really thinking about how or if they should be automated, or if there might be a better way to do the services in the first place. For the most part, we've gotten over that.

Then we tried to imitate everything that the dot-com world was trying to do. We're still in that wave in a lot of ways, but we're getting a little better.

Now, as a profession we're starting to move into the sphere of realizing that there are certain things we do well, and that we should be capitalizing on those things to leverage and ensure our future. The knowledge and experience that the library profession have developed and honed over the years will be more valuable as information becomes even more pervasive.

She closed her remarks by quoting something she had heard Bill Clinton say at BookExpo in Chicago a few weeks ago. He'd said that he was optimistic for the United States despite the extreme polarization abroad in the land. He noted that at nearly every point in US history when the country has become severely polarized, it has chosen unity and international involvement as a way out. After the Revolution, after the Civil War, after the Great Depression and World War II, after Vietnam, we sought to unify and look outward. The sole exception was after World War I, and this had dire consequences.

Cindy noted that she thinks the library field will choose unity as well as we collaborate and cooperate to improve our profession.

In my final post on the symposium, to be done later tonight, I'll tell you about the discussion that closed the session. Good stuff there, too!

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