Saturday, May 13, 2006

Google don't know nuffink

No, it doesn't. It likes to think that one day it will and one day that may well be the case but for the time being, don't bet your life on it.

We've become so conditioned in our blind acceptance of the primacy of the internet as the largest repository of information that we tend to forget there's a huge and largely untapped resource of knowledge out there, namely libraries. It used to be the case that the library was the first place you went when you didn't know anything (or you didn't trust the kid who thought he did) and I remember many hours sat in the reference library in Ashford as a kid wrapped in the Brittanica or rapt, sauntering through Kent with Charles Igglesden.

Yesterday I was reminded of the superiority of the printed word because I wanted to look something up and I couldn't find it from the comfort of my chair. The biography I'm writing threw up the name of Carroll Levis, who probably won't be familiar to anyone younger than myself and is probably forgotten by many older. For 20 years surrounding the last war he was the country's proxy talent scout. He hosted a radio and then TV show called "Carroll Levis Discoveries," a format later copied by Opportunity Knocks, and my client once appeared on it. Trouble is, he couldn't remember when. Not wishing to waste a huge amount of effort on listening to old, and un-indexed, recordings at the British Library for a mere aside, we compromised on trying to find out when the programmes were roughly transmitted. It became a little bit of a grail, more so as the more we searched, the less important the outcome actually became; the search becoming the important thing. For someone who was a big figure in radio, there is precious little known about him and we didn't even know when the programmes were broadcast.

Tony, my client, lives in London. I had given him a link to a very nice lady at the BBC archives in Reading. Tony is a natural with the ladies and he came away with a reference to the sound recordings at the British Library. Bad news. There were loads and all unindexed. However a friendly cove there pointed him at the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography and he came away with the first decent biography of Carroll Levis and that at least gave us something to work with.

This is where the revelation starts. On the phone Tony had mentioned something about sending me the link for it. I didn't quite understand because he's a bit of a numpty when it comes to things digital (when he uses his Blackberry for instance, I can't email him. Not worked out why yet) but I said I was going to Crewe Library later anyway so I'd have a look myself. When I did and looked in the rather small edition of the ODNB they had there I couldn't find the biography of Levis. Stumped, I came home and looked on teh interwebs for the ODNB and lo! they done very genius things with it.

As of the end of April, you've been able to read it, online and for FREE! Not only that but also the authoritative Grove dictionaries of art and music, the OED and the Oxford Reference Online. There is a catch though; normally one would pay £150 a year or £50 a quarter to get these online but the Oxford University Press and the Museums and Libraries Archive have reached an agreement whereby libraries can subscribe and their members can access the data for free for the next couple of years using their library membership number. Nearly all library authorities have subscribed to all or part of the scheme so far and all you need to do is go to your library website and look for the Online Reference Library links (this is what mine looks like but unless you live in Cheshire don't use this otherwise you'll look foolish) For goodness sakes don't try and work this out from the ODNB site either as it's been designed by zebras. Reading the Cheshire site it's apparent that they are taking this initiative very seriously indeed and have subscribed to even more reference databases. There are worse places to live.

Can you see what an excellent thing this is? Not only have you got access to the world's greatest reference works, stuff that Google hasn't managed to subscribe to yet, but they've made it so you have to join your library to do it. This is a very good thing indeed because libraries are very good things, especially when it's raining, and have to be kept open at all costs because civilisation would collapse otherwise. Now go and tell your children.

13 Vegetable peelings:

Blogger Frontier Editor said...

Hear hear! Huzzah!

You'd think people would have learned after the library at Alexandria burned.

12:17 am  
Blogger Richard Seamon said...

Peoples have short memories, Ed.

12:21 am  
Blogger Vicus Scurra said...

Frontier editor.
Shhhh!
Less of the 'hear, hear, huzzah'
Very inappropriate for the library.

7:02 am  
Blogger Frontier Editor said...

Good point. I'll just skulk outside and cheer . . . .

2:20 pm  
Blogger Sharon J said...

If only "have to stay open at all costs" were true. Hasn't there been talk of closing quite a few of our libraries recently as they aren't being used enough? Something to do with cost vs. use, I believe. I'm sure the Interweb can be blamed for that so let's all boycott Google for a year and go to the library whenever we need to research something. Good idea, yes? It'll be like being young again.

2:22 pm  
Blogger Frontier Editor said...

Interesting issue in our libraries - staff in so many library systems have focused on purchasing videotape/dvd movies at the expense of updating non-fiction collections. I can still walk into my local library's non-fiction stacks and it's like a trip back to 1984. The reference sections aren't much better.

And then when Amazon is your best best for an electronic bibliographical search, one has to mutter evil things under their breath about the state of scholarship and information on the Internet.

3:56 pm  
Blogger Geoff said...

Bexleyheath Library's been modernised and now seems to be a hangout for rowdy teenage boys.

I followed some in yesterday as they started to shout obscenities.

"Mindless," said the library assistant to me.

She looked like she was used to it.

8:14 pm  
Blogger Cherrypie said...

* Vigorous head nodding coupled with mimed hand clapping* from a library frequenter

8:24 pm  
Blogger tom909 said...

I hate libraries, full of the kind of people who used to do their homework.

8:42 am  
Blogger orange said...

I dislike lybrary's to, full of iliterite,dislecksick old codgers who all look lik denis nillson.

10:36 am  
Blogger Pamela said...

Richard, that's fantastic! Everyone in our family has a library card and I see to it that they are used quite often. Apologies to Google aside, there really isn't anything to compare with a real library at your fingertips.

7:30 pm  
Blogger http://www.stevedix.de/blog said...

One of the things I had to learn, as a student of computing in the mid 80's, was effective use of a library. No free internet terminals then - what little there was was expensive, restricted to lecturers only, and there was no http:// protocol, let alone google.

If you wanted to find out something, you had to trudge down to the library, look it up on the index, find the book, and then skim it for the relevant knowledge. For my final year project, this meant many hours sorting through dusty volumes of the IEEE Transactions on Information Science. It meant that you had to learn to research.

It pisses me off something rotten, therefore, when confronted by younger graduates working alongside me, that, despite having the internet piped to their very desk, they are absolutely incapable of researching a problem.

2:47 pm  
Blogger Richard Seamon said...

Couldn't agree more, Steve. They seem so eager to trust the first thing they find, too. The worst thing about writing for someone whose memory isn't what it was is that I feel duty bound to research virtually everything and then - DOUBLE CHECK because I don't trust teh interwebs as far as I can chuck it.

4:23 pm  

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