A recent article on Salon.com, Google makes us all dumber: The neuroscience of search engines, really caught my interest. In my research business, Google is usually my first stop (and possibly my 3rd or 4th) in my path to finding the answers to my clients' questions. Was this another case of blaming Google for society's problems, including the downfall of libraries as we know them? Or is there really neuroscience backing the premise that relying on Google will somehow cause a loss of several IQ points?
The article contains some interesting points and great quotes to support the author's claim that access to easy answers makes us lazy. We stop being curious, and "our ability to ask questions is atrophying." But it isn't until the end of the article that we learn that Google isn't really bad. It's all in how we use it - just like any technology. "The Internet has the potential to be the greatest tool for intellectual exploration ever invented, but only if treated as a complement to our talent for inquiry, rather than a replacement for it." But neuroscience? Hardly.
Mainly, the author overlooks the difference between knowledge-seeking and what librarians call "ready reference." Since libraries have existed, reference librarians have been the go-to people for all types of questions, ranging from those that need just a quick answer to those requiring in-depth research.
I've worked as a reference librarian before and after Google, and I can attest to the fact that people have never been very good at asking questions. As part of our training, librarians learn reference interview skills, which help us discover our patrons' real questions. One librarian joke involves a request for a red book by X author, which always turns out to be a green book by Y author.
Back in the day, people called the reference desk at their local library or pulled the encyclopedia off the shelf to settle bets and dinnertime disputes. Now they turn to Google for those ready reference questions and as a starting point for research. And that's a good thing, for several reasons:
First, Google actually helps us ask better questions. Their autocomplete feature offers alternative keywords that we might not have thought of. Advanced searching and filtering provide targeted results, without the need for Boolean operators.
Google also tells us where to go. It's a great starting point for those questions that can't be answered online. We can find leads to sources and get the background info we need before picking up the phone to call the experts.
Finally, Google has democratized the information and knowledge-seeking process. It won't replace libraries or librarians, but fewer ready-reference questions means more time for the experts to spend on teaching, getting at the right questions, and digging deep when we need more than a quick answer.
So, please don't blame Google. We've always been lazy, and it's human nature to look for the easy way out. But don't think for a minute that it's going to stop us from asking "Why?" and "How?" - and it will never stop us from getting what we crave: meaningful information that helps us solve our real problems.