A Librarian’s Perspective about the Misleading “Let Me Google That for You” Act

When Senators Tom Coburn [R-OK] and Claire McCaskill [D-MO] introduced the “Let Me Google That for You” Act to the Senate in April 2014, the bill seemed to have good intentions. It plans to consolidate government information and resources by determining if the National Technical Information Service (NTIS) is critical to the economy of the United States. In sum, the bill encourages eliminating a government agency because it assumes Google can find the information you need for free.

According to the NTIS website, the organization is “the largest central resource for government-funded scientific, technical, engineering, and business related information available today,” and provides access to businesses, universities, and the public. Over the past 60 years, NTIS has provided resources to approximately three million publications covering over 350 subject areas. While many of the resources provided by the NTIS are available elsewhere at no cost, NTIS offers information access and retrieval services, in addition to content.

Despite the bill’s good intentions to streamline services and save taxpayers money, the name of the bill’s title, “Let Me Google That For You Act” indicates a remarkable lack of knowledge about the collection and distribution of information in an electronic environment. While Google is a used by patrons and librarians countless times every day, it cannot predict what information will be relevant to an individual. Other reports suggest that areas of the Internet accessible to Google comprise about 1% of the total information available. While Google may be the latest and greatest search engine among a long line of existing ones, librarians know that just because information exists somewhere, in some form, it does not mean the information is accessible to users.

Librarians and information providers assist people in finding information relevant to them. Anyone can type a phrase into Google (or any other search engine) and expect to receive a few million “hits” of information. Yet knowing whether any of it is useful, relevant, or correct is becoming increasingly complicated. In the case of the NTIS, the information it collects is focused on specific audiences. The NTIS Bibliographic Database is a repository of specialized information which is not easily collected or understood without assistance. According to the NTIS website, “contents include research reports, computer products, software, video cassettes, audio cassettes and more. The complete electronic file dates back to 1964. On average, NTIS adds over 30,000 new records per year to the database. Most records include abstracts.” The fee-for-service involves retrieval, evaluation, and analysis of an individual’s request and a time-efficient search strategy, as well as translation services into 25 foreign languages from English. “The cost is based on the level of effort required. Because the research and analysis is carried out by specialists, the information you receive will be on target and on time. The minimum fee is $500.” The cost in time saved in not requiring people to search through every branch of the federal government for crucial information could be enormous.

While the bill may be an appropriate way to save taxpayer money with the elimination of a government agency, it is not clear yet that this is the case. As a librarian, I support a thoughtful evaluation of the NTIS to recognize its value to its patrons. It would be shortsighted to eliminate a still-useful source of information. More importantly, the flippant dismissal of information professionals’ work evidenced in this bill reinforces the need for additional advocacy by the library and information science profession. It is our responsibility to reach out to our patrons and to the communities we serve, and to tell them about the value of our work. Clearly, we cannot leave it to others to intuit the value of the materials and services we provide. Without a change in the way we work as professionals, the assumption that all of us can be replaced with Google is likely to have a terrible impact on the profession.

By Assistant Professor Mary Wilkins Jordan and Dean’s Editorial Fellow Jennifer Moyer