Why Amazon and Google are not the Competition

Are we trying to make NextGen Catalogs into something that they don't really need to be? We constantly hear at conferences and in other professional venues that Amazon.com and Google are "the competition." Are they, really? With the exception of sales of donated materials, we're not trying to sell books. And libraries are not just books, but space, computer and internet access, services, etc. Right? Ironic that internet access--the very thing that was supposed to be our undoing--has become one of the top reasons for library use.

The big push now is "discovery systems." Is it really such a bad thing that people admit that they use our catalogs just to check on local availability, NOT for discovery? I had an Economics professor insist to me once that the default search in our catalog should be "Author," which, in the case of that advanced user, certainly suggests a preference for known item searching. (I didn't change the default to "Author," however.)

Ten or so years ago, we were concerned because users were leaving libraries in droves--as evidenced by lowered gate counts--because of the internet. Like the internet generally, Amazon is just another tool out there to help people meet their information needs. Do we feel, professionally, that we have to be the only toolbox in town? Okay, sorry, that metaphor kinda broke down.

I hear my instruction colleagues drilling into freshman heads the same thing that I did back when I did instruction: "Start your research on the Library's web page, not Google!" Why? I certainly don't. Heck, half the time, I throw "wiki" into my search terms to grab the Wikipedia articles relevant to what I'm searching. Are we, professionally, really so jealous of what we perceive as the competition? Why condemn this natural information seeking behavior, rather than supporting it and drawing it toward a conclusion--if necessary for the user's information needs--in library materials?

That Amazon.com is not our competition is corroborated, at least anecdotally, by a couple of comments that we've received from our faculty about our newly-released WorldCat Local implementaion. They compared it to Amazon.com. That may at first inspire librarian fist pumping and woo hoos. However, the comparison is--gasp!--derogatory:

"The new database seems based on Amazon.com. I don’t need suggestions, and poor ones at that, of related books when I use the library. I don’t need to see what other borrowers thought of the book. The information I need is poorly displayed. It is hard to cut and paste. It takes several screens to scan through, instead of the much quicker scroll in the traditional format (e.g., finding out what libraries have the book). It supplies distracting, if not useless information (a picture of the cover, the distance to other libraries—as if I need to know how far Provo is). Finally, the one potentially useful feature—a direct link that will let me order the title via Prospector [our consortium catalog]—is left off."

Cover art is distracting? Suggestions aren't useful? Hmmm...is there trouble in discovery paradise?

"I’m glad to hear that this database is on a trial basis! It’s all over the place, specifically in the initial search options. Where I would have been able to search specifically for the call number or author, I am left to do a basic keyword search, and then to weed through the unwanted material (while this is helpful sometimes, it is counterproductive when the exact book is known). The layout also just looks cheesy. I feel like I’m searching Amazon.com for a discounted textbook that will inevitably be tattered and torn. Besides that, there aren’t many images linked to books and that exacerbates the cheesy vibes I get from it!
I wonder if it is just that it will take me time to get used to the new look, but my first impression of it is NOT NOT NOT a good one!"

All of that said, I'm certainly not suggesting that we shouldn't adapt and move forward to better serve our users. In fact, that's exactly what I AM suggesting. I'm really excited about our implementation of WorldCat Local and how we'll shape it to the needs and expectations of our users--including the two apparently advanced ones I've quoted above. Check it out http://aurarialibrary.worldcat.org, and at the new home page at http://library.auraria.edu.

I just question what we're so jealous and afraid of, who and what we consider competition, and why we spend thousands of dollars and lots of time hand-wringing to try to be something that we don't need to be. Amazon and Google are successful because they're in tune with what their users want from them. THAT's what we need to be emulating.