Libraries vs. Google in the 21st Century

by Shawn Behrends  

Recent statistics released by OCLC’s Perception of Libraries, 2010 do bear out the assertion that users rely heavily, if not exclusively, on Internet search engines for information search tasks.  Their survey showed that 84% of respondents reported starting a search on a search engine, and not a single respondent reported beginning on library websites (De Rosa et al., 2011, p. 32).  If libraries have traditionally been the gatekeepers of information people need, how do they maintain relevance in this new information-seeking paradigm?

This essay examines what we mean when we talk about authority and credibility for Internet sources.  It discusses the question of whether free Internet information services like Google really can compete as an alternative to traditional library reference services.  Finally, this essay considers the practical implications for libraries and it offers solutions for living comfortably within the free and open online information landscape.

What Google Offers Users

Users have sound and valid reasons for relying on the Internet for their information needs.  Internet search engines offer information that is self-service, free, and available 24/7 in one’s own home (Anderson, 2005).  The Google web browser has been a driving force in this perception.  Anderson states that “Google has succeeded wildly at finding its users the information they want in return for a minimum investment of time and energy” (p. 32) and Timpson (2011) observes that for searchers Google offers a one-stop shopping experience and a very usable interface.  Critics of the Google-style information search have countered that it returns too many results—and too many irrelevant results—and that most people lack the skills to form an effective search.  Anderson argues that the same could be said for libraries.  They also suffer from information glut and users have no better success formulating effective queries on library websites and databases.  One could argue that they have even less success on these.  What users do get from Google, however, is good enough quality information (Anderson, 2005).

What is quality information?  How do we judge it?  These questions of authority and credibility of Internet information sources have been the object of much debate and are central to whether we, as librarians, allow ourselves to embrace or reject this 21st century reality.  Perhaps no website has been the object of as much derision by the library community as Wikipedia, the online open source encyclopedia.  Yet Wikipedia has proven, over time, to be at least as authoritative as mainstream published encyclopedias (Lankes, 2008).  It is, in fact, verified for accuracy of its scientific articles against the science journal, Nature (Brindley, 2006).

Establishing Authority and Credibility on the Internet

The question of authority—a trusted source—on the Internet is compounded by the problem of so much information, so many choices.  Lankes (2008) has made some very engaging observations about how users navigate the Internet information space, how they choose information sources, and how they make judgments on the credibility of the information they find.  In contrast to the old model of going to the library to consult librarians and trusted resources for credible and authoritative information, Internet users must operate on a self-sufficiency model.  Because Internet users cannot engage physically with the items they encounter, they are dependent on information they can glean about the items.  (For example, one can pick up and examine a book in the bookstore or the library, while one must depend on the information provided about the book on

Whom does one believe?  Lankes (2008) posits that credibility is derived from trust and expertise.  On the Internet, that means that users are dependent on information provided by others.  According to Lankes, that explains the power and popularity of social web applications of Web 2.0.  The desire to participate and engage the feedback of others is at the heart of credibility on the Internet—and reliability, Lankes claims, is the currency of credibility.  On the Internet, it is reliability that is more powerful than authority.  It is through the consensus of the participatory Web environment that one can determine the reliability of information sources on the Internet.  Establishing authority on the Internet in yet another form comes, very famously, from Google’s PageRank algorithm that is based on consumer input from links generated between web pages (Regalado, 2007).

The implication for libraries is two-fold.  One calls for an attitude adjustment in terms of the message libraries broadcast about authoritative sources and the Internet.  According to Lankes (2008), that has been, generally:  Internet bad.  Library good.  Lankes asserts that the relative ease of use of the Internet and other digital resources makes authoritative sources easy to find, and that because the Internet provides access to raw data (e.g., NOAA for climate data) users feel empowered as authorities.  The second implication is for the services that libraries provide.  As information service providers, libraries need to get on board with social Web applications and the kinds of linked data schemes that allow them to add value and context to the information they already disseminate.  Lankes observes that librarians (and users) must “be fluent in the tools that facilitate the conversation” (p. 682).

Does Google Work Better Than Libraries?

Surprising—to we librarians, at least—is the popular perception that other sites have better information than libraries (Timpson & Sansom, 2011).  Timpson and Sansom conducted a study comparing students’ perceptions and search performance of Google Scholar against library research discovery platforms and databases.  In keyword searches—which were how students actually preferred to search—Google Scholar performed better than the library products.  Students were biased toward the single search box and they were satisfied with the precision and recall of search results on Google Scholar.  Although Google Scholar did not out-perform the library databases for relevance in subject specific areas, the authors noted that the trend in academic libraries seems to be toward the types of Google-like search interfaces that students feel comfortable with.  They also noted that the students’ satisfaction with the Google results may reflect the kind of research documents they prefer.

Practical implications of this research can be drawn for libraries.   Timpson and Sansom (2011) suggest that publishers put more effort into creating the kind of one-stop research experience that students prefer.  Libraries can vote with their pocketbooks to effect these kinds of changes.   Timpson also reflected that Google can be an effective search tool.  Librarians must be proactive in teaching student researchers techniques for getting the best results from Internet searches, and to appreciate the power and the limitations of library databases (Regalado, 2007).

The kind of service Google offers to searchers differs from that of libraries as well.  Beyond the obvious appeal of the convenience of providing search on demand, Anderson (2005) discusses ways in which Google’s search capabilities are superior.  Google’s search is more granular because it can search at the article level.  Libraries’ search engines are not so sophisticated—one can only search as deeply as the title of a book, for example.  Google also has full-text search capability.  Essentially, Anderson observes, Google can search the content.  The library catalog can only deliver the container.  But Google isn’t the only Internet information service that exceeds the online library catalog in granularity. has announced a new service to make books available at the page and chapter levels (Brindley, 2006).  What does than mean for libraries?  We need to design better search engines.

Strategies for Making the Library’s Online Services More Relevant to Users

Users’ confidence in Internet resources represents a crisis that needs to be met by libraries if they wish to have a presence and be competitive as the “go-to” resource for online research and reference queries.  There are several avenues that libraries can take to respond to this challenge.

Embrace Internet Information Services and Technologies

Anderson (2005) observes the ambivalence of librarians toward services like Google’s.  While publicly they disparage Google, privately they have adopted it in their own information seeking practices.  That approach seems hypocritical and disrespectful to the vast majority of users who view the Internet as a self-service cafeteria for finding the information they need.

Web 2.0 technologies have introduced a number of different tools that are preferred by Internet users and can be adapted by librarians to improve service to their patrons.  These include using instant messaging tools for reference, wikis for pathfinders and subjects guides, and blogs and RSS feeds for library news events (Regalado, 2007).  Libraries have also begun to embrace social networking technologies such as Facebook and Twitter as effective and free communications tools.  All of these tools operate on the conversational principle that has proven to be an important component for users to judge the reliability of Internet resources.

Re-Imagine Reference Services

Reference services are the main point of contact of libraries to information seekers.  Popular and scholarly literature concerning reference services is replete with suggestions for luring patrons away from Google and Wikipedia and into library vetted online resources.  Like many reference service providers, Arndt (2010) recommends helping users to navigate that vast information landscape they encounter on the Internet as a key service that libraries can provide.  Arndt’s literature review reveals that younger users still desire and value the assistance of face-to-face reference services.  Research concerned with keeping library reference services alive and relevant to users includes ideas such as services that require librarians to leave their desks and meet users at computer stations, in the stacks, in academic departments, in coffee shops, and through research skills workshops.  Arndt concludes that researchers still desire reference services but that the way libraries provide these services must change.

Join the Internet Community

Lankes’ (2008) discussion on the importance of user input and conversation for verifying credibility of online resources hints at the need for libraries to employ these social technologies in the online services they provide.  Although the ideals of authority and credibility are implicit in library-sponsored online content (and users recognize that), users have come to expect and prefer these resources that incorporate user feedback and context.

New technologies also allow libraries to link to outside sources.  Newly emerging linked data technologies allow libraries to create a web of links that allow users to access library resources from outside of the library’s websites (Miller & Westfall, 2011).  Thus, users may still begin information searches in Google, but they may discover answers within the library’s resources.  Using linked data schemes libraries can position themselves in the center of Internet information spaces.


Although it is not true that all of the information that users seek can be found on the Internet (the difficulty of accessing the deep web exemplifies this notion), a great deal of information that is good enough to meet the needs of users can be found there (Anderson, 2005).  Many of these sources are, in fact, as authoritative and as credible as those that can be found in libraries (Lankes, 2008).  Lankes reminds us that systems for determining credibility have shifted as Internet users are left to make these judgments on their own.  The conversational exchange that is enabled through social web technologies has filled this credibility gap by allowing Internet users to leverage vast pools of user input (e.g., customer ratings, forums, and complaint sites) to judge the credibility of information based the reliability of its providers.  Sometimes this means that Internet users abandon traditional news service providers in favor blogs and other informal sources or, as in the case of Hurricane Katrina, Lankes (2008) reports that information seekers turned to local chat rooms and community sites to verify contradictory reports.

Libraries must recognize that they are increasingly not at the center of information seeking behaviors of Internet users.  Several strategies, however, can be employed to counter this.  Inside of the physical library and community environments libraries can find innovative ways to push reference services to users.  They can be proactive in educating searchers in more sophisticated search techniques and demonstrate the utility of their database products.  Librarians should be engaged in lobbying electronic resources publishers to create databases with more appealing user interfaces and superior functionality.  Libraries must also take seriously the need to have a presence online and create points of access that make their resources discoverable by Internet browsers.

OCLC’s (De Rosa et al., 2011) 2010 perceptions report reveals that although library resources still rank high for being trustworthy, users have confidence in their abilities to make determinations about Internet sources for themselves—and they are equally as confident about the trustworthiness of the Internet.  Add to that the convenience of information seeking on the Internet and one can only conclude that the library will need to work very diligently to maintain relevance as an online information provider.

Shawn Behrends has an MLS from the University of North Texas. She works at Madison Public Library in Madison, South Dakota.


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Miller, E., & Westfall, M. (2011). Linked data and libraries. Serials Librarian, 60(1-4), 17-22. doi:10.1080/0361526X.2011.556427

Regalado, M. (2007). Research authority in the age of Google: Equilibrium sought. Library Philosophy & Practice, 9(3), 1-6.  Retrieved from

Timpson, H., & Sansom, G. (2011). A student perspective on e-resource discovery: Has the Google factor changed publisher platform searching forever? Serials Librarian, 61(2), 253-266. doi:10.1080/0361526X.2011.592115