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Outsourcing Our Memories To Google

image from Ars Electronica on Flickr

A study was recently published in Science Magazine called Google Effects on Memory: Cognitive Consequences of Having Information at Our Fingertips. It concluded that because of the ever present access to information via the web people are remembering less. The Ars Technica summary says “experiments suggest that people expect computerized information to be continuously available, and actually remember less when they know they’ll have access to it later. We also seem to remember where we can find information instead of the information itself.”

I have heard students say things like “I don’t have to know that, Google knows it for me.” It seems that we are increasingly outsourcing parts of memory to Google and the web. This is definitely a shift in how our minds work and how we think about information. What then, are the implications for information literacy and how we talk about accessing and recalling information?

For one thing our thinking about information is becoming increasingly meta. Instead of remembering actual information we remember where it was located. We no longer need to know as many facts since connectivity is seemingly ubiquitous now and we can access collective knowledge via the web with devices that are in our pocket. We now just remember bits and pieces of an article that we read, but we can remember who tweeted it or which email account it was sent to, and then access it again when we need it.

Is depending on the web for our memories a bad thing then? People have made arguments in the past against technologies ruining our memories. In Plato’s Phaedrus, Socrates depicts the new technology of writing as a device that will ruin the memories of it’s users:

“ this discovery of yours [writing] will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves. The specific which you have discovered is an aid not to memory, but to reminiscence, and you give your disciples not truth, but only the semblance of truth; they will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality.”

It seems that this did not happen, in fact writing was a great technology for spreading ideas across time and great distances. But what are some of the possible implications of outsourcing our memories to the web, and how can we talk with students about them?

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Content Farms and Teachable Moments

I’ve noticed a lot of posts lately about how the quality of Google’s search is declining. This is mainly due to content farms that churn out mediocre to low quality articles about every imaginable topic. They do this in the hopes that people will find their pages through Google and click on the ads there.

These content farms are things you have seen in search results before. They are sites like eHow, eZine Articles, HubPages, and Yahoo Answers among many others. And they are annoying as hell. I can’t remember ever finding a useful post on Yahoo Answers. Luckily, it seems that Google is finally trying to do something about it.

For some things, Google is great. I can type “Aljazeera” in and quickly find their English page without knowing the URL. For articles where I can’t remember who wrote them or where I read them, I can type a few keywords that I remember and retrieve them. But if I am doing any shopping I’m not going to Google. There is far too much spam and bias. I’ll go to Amazon or directly to a site. If I am looking for a somewhat credible answer to a not simply factual (Wikipedia) sort of question, I’m not likely going to search Google. Or if I do, I am often disappointed.

This was part of what I was trying to get at in my information landscape post earlier this month. Google is not magic and can’t do everything. It often fails us, and we lower our standards for it because we believe that it’s magic. It seems like these posts about lower quality search results could be used as teachable moments for students.

I observed another librarian teaching and she talked to students about sites like these. She pointed out things like the “belly fat” ads and how the content is normally pretty terrible. It seemed to work very well. Can we use this problem with search to help students become more discerning information consumers? Does anyone else talk about this?

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Who Are YOUR Users?

baby in a library

photo by found_drama on Flickr

Google’s pretty powerful, right? It’s the most popular search engine, owns the second most popular search engine (Youtube), and there’s Gmail, Docs, etc. It’s a conglomeration of a lot of different services into a single massive company. Google can do a lot of amazing stuff because it’s so big and has so much capital.

But Google’s just one company. There is also strength in numbers. One of the main strengths of libraries are their numbers. There are more public libraries in the U.S. than McDonald’s. Libraries may be much smaller than a company like Google, but because of that they can be much more focused. Google is trying to “organize the world’s information.” Libraries aren’t trying to do that. We’re trying to organize and provide access for information that’s relevant to our users.

Because there are a lot of small libraries serving different communities, we can provide resources that’s relevant to them. The Fletcher Free Library here in Burlington lends out gardening tools. This is because they know that there’s a lot of interest in home gardening in this area. Because libraries are small and many we can know our specific communities and deliver value from that knowledge.

Knowing our users is one of our big competitive advantages, so don’t forget to make use of it. In things like implementing new technologies, figure out what YOUR users are using. Are there a lot of smart phones or regular phones? Do they communicate via email, IM, or Facebook. At Champlain College we’re a fairly small school, but I know that a high number of our students are on Twitter (as of today we’re in the top ten on CampusTweet). But this is not true everywhere. Twitter might not be right for every community.

It’s also necessary to continually learn about your users. Don’t always assume that you know them. Do traditional things like suggestion boxes, surveys and old fashioned talking to people. But also, simply be curious about your users. Wander around, observe them, glance at what they’re doing on your computers. Also listen to what users are saying online. I have a post about how to go about that. I find out some of the most interesting things through some of the alerts I have set up.

To succeed at what we’re trying to do we need to realize what our strengths are and leverage them. One of our biggest strengths of libraries is the fact that they are small, many, and know their users.