The Power of Placement

| July 29, 2010

As many librarians learn in school, you can get rid of a book without removing it from your library.  A “pocket weeding” if you will.  This usually means placing it in a section of the library away from it’s subject heading brothers, as well as the prying eyes of the browsing public (i.e. a section of the library where no one goes).  This sounds really scandalous, a lot of the time it’s done with books who have “controversial topics” to prevent from political disputes about banning things.  But speaking more generally, when you are in charge of organizing information placement and discovery, you can make it disappear if you want to.  This is sort of a “gate keeper” approach to library science that very few librarians actually do anymore.  If books are hidden in the stacks, it’s more likely for their protection, or to keep them available to the readership that wants them rather than for censorship reasons.  We’re a pretty open everything kind of group (unless someone is a danger to themselves or others . . .obviously).

I’ve just finished reading a study done by Yahoo! on using Demographic information to limit search results, allegedly making them more useful to the searcher.  Their study establishes similarities in the selection of results among different demographic groups.  While I’ve read the study, and don’t doubt that there are likely some similarities in the search result selection in various demographic groups, I feel that this is heading us in the wrong direction.  As librarians, catalogers, and information providers, we have worked very hard to continually open access to information and information resources.  The internets main purpose is to allow for finding whatever you want.  As librarians, we instruct on evaluating resources for personal relevance and accuracy, but this is all with the intention of empowering the user to find these things themselves, and evaluate them themselves (obviously with full willingness on our part to help).  This seems to me, to be the opposite.  You are already limited with a search engine by what appears on the front page, and if I were to know that that was not effected by my personal interent use, but by my race, class, gender, economic background, and location, I would be PISSED.   It is a slippery, dangerous slope.  Internet use is individual, and while there might be trends it seems like this would presume, on the basis of some VERY dangerous standards, what you “need to know”.  The search engine is now the gatekeeper.

Librarians unchained the books from the floor years ago, we opened the stacks (for the most part).  We aren’t gatekeepers anymore, we’re more like tour guides.  For many of the obvious political reasons why it’s dangerous to limit people’s information access by demographics, but from a librarian standpoint . . .  Maybe I’m just being hypersensitive and reacting to the use of “demographics” at all.  But i don’t know, it gives me pause, particularly in light of more and more people using search engines for research beyond personal needs.

Anyway, here’s the link: http://research.yahoo.com/pub/3186

you guys read it and tell me what you think.