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No, and No

July 7, 2009

This is how the link appeared on Arts & Letters Daily as of July 7th, 2009:

“The Wolfram search engine will allow people to make use of science on a daily basis, just as Google has made billions of people reference librarians…”

Um, no. And no. Frankly, this took me aback. As one might expect from a site associated with the Chronicle of Higher Education, A&L Daily’s usually much better at making their tag lines provocative without straying into outright error. (Nota bene: The linked article itself is focused on Wolfram Alpha, not Google, and does not make this sloppy comparison.)

Google did not make anyone into a reference librarian. Far from it… reference librarians aren’t just fountains of uninterpreted data; they’re professional synthesists, who know not just where to look for information but how to determine what results are relevant. Anyone can use Google, but that doesn’t mean everyone uses it well… and (as my spouse the reference librarian well knows), Google’s only a starting point (and often not even the best one at that) for a solid reference query.

And (at this point, anyway), Wolfram Alpha’s not much better at allowing people to “make use of science” – it provides prettier results when it can tell you anything at all, but they’re still in need of interpretation by a human being.

Update July 15, 2009:

SEE ALSO this Metafilter thread called “It Came from the Stacks,” which discusses the role of public libraries and librarians, in sometimes-contentious but interesting ways.

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