Will Google Helpouts Disrupt Libraries?


Last week, Google unveiled a new service called Helpouts and, maybe in the process, they’ve introduced a threat to libraries. Libraries face increased costs due to journals and databases, while at the same time they have seen their budgets decrease or stagnate since 2008. But, what does that have to do with Google Helpouts?

First, a librarian’s job is to connect people with knowledge. Traditionally, this connection took the form of a face-to-face reference interview with the librarian acting as the intermediary between the person performing a search and the card catalogue. Technology changed that process. Online catalogs distanced the librarian from the user. Search engines crept into our lives, supplanting libraries as the gateway to information. Libraries employed chat reference to increase access, but library reference still revolved around librarians connecting people with resources.

The tagline for Google Helpouts is “real help from real people in real time.” Doesn’t that sound awfully similar to a librarian? So, let’s imagine a scenario. Pretend we have a grad student named, John, who is hard up for money. Through John’s university he has access to a wealth of subscription databases. Perhaps, through Facebook and Twitter, John has sent some articles to friends who attend institutions with less resources. Now, imagine John offering a Helpout in which he performs his version of a reference interview and sends a stranger journal articles for $15. The price could be less than what the publisher offered and much faster than interlibrary loan. John may not be an expert at search like a librarian, but he has access to information.

In this scenario, what happens to libraries?

Another possible disruption could take place with independent researchers. Again, the cost of accessing information is so expensive that competition from amateurs with access could severely undercut what a professional researcher can charge. In this scenario, how does the independent researcher stay in business?

If this sounds far-fetched, consider that librarians are already moving into the space.

What do you think of Google Helpouts? Is this one more step toward connecting people and overcoming the problems of search? Or, will Helpouts drastically affect the bottomline of experts in the information economy?

20 thoughts on “Will Google Helpouts Disrupt Libraries?”

  1. The technology in use is better, of course, but this doesn’t seem all that different in tone or nature from the mid-late 90s profusion of “help” services online. There were myriad talks and discussions at conferences and in libraries about these new “competitors” and whether they would dig into that one area where libraries tend to do well, personalized (fairly) expert service. Needless to say, each and every one of them failed or morphed into less threatening forms. Although it wasn’t human help, the fear that arose from the launch of AskJeeves in 1996 was thought to be a similar threat to libraries. Ask.com now survives by teaming up with NASCAR as their official search engine. Not too concerning.

    All that said, I think your comment about this changing the playing field for interacting with users says a lot. Chat reference works fairly well, but it seems very dated these days. Now, will librarians feel comfortable with having their face in video sessions? Oh how I don’t look forward to those conversations …

    1. Great point, Dale. I feel that video reference may come out as a selling point, if people get accustomed to it. One thing that may help is the Kindle Fire’s “Mayday” button, which will connect a user to a human for immediate, personal assistance.

      Also, it may be a positive on integrated service desks that provide both IT / instructional tech help as well as reference.

  2. Well, since around 70% of the people I help in my area of library work would have trouble even getting to Helpouts (the website), I’m not too concerned. I work in digital literacy and information literacy in addition to standard reference work. And people I see on a daily basis either haven’t used a computer before or (more often) simply don’t know how to use one effectively.

    The “technology replaces librarians/libraries” argument is a straw man. Public libraries serve all sectors of the community, but most of the people who come into my library to use the computers do not have a computer nor internet connection at home. So… the libraries are a bridge even to Helpouts and other information portals (like journals and databases). Another way to put it: we are helping bring technology to people, not being supplanted by technology. Also, if you venture into a public library during children’s events (story times, movies, educational events) or literacy help (for people who can’t read, for people learning English as a second language) or school tutoring sessions, you will see the impact that libraries have on fostering a sense of community. Could all of those things be offered on Helpouts? Sure. Would the people hosting those things on Helpouts know which books kids need for reading based on their state’s standards? Which local organizations help people become American citizens? Where they can find local after-school tutors? Probably not.

    Libraries have been adaptable in different societies for centuries. Despite budget cuts, there is a growing need for and use of libraries. (I speak from the public library perspective. I do however believe that academic and specialized libraries will be OK too. I just can’t speak expertly on that.)

    Another point is that many people might not know WHAT they’re looking for. Helpouts wouldn’t actually help someone who is looking for a type of book, or an avenue of research, or an app that would help them in their life. Helpouts has a list of offerings and charges to go along with it. Sure, I suppose there could be people on Helpouts charging to help people figure out what they’re looking for, which brings me to…

    Finally, if we consider the librarian offering services on Helpouts, would someone really pay a librarian online for Helpouts when they could call their local library’s reference desk with their questions? Or (as you mentioned) send an IM or email to their local librarian? For free? That doesn’t make any sense to me. (Except, well, I suppose there could be a student market for paid research help, but that market would probably rely on last-minute strategies and instant research gratification. It appears that Helpouts lets the Helpers set their own schedules.) I personally offer anyone in my community the chance to schedule 30 minutes with me at the library. People bring in their computers, their tablets, their documents they need help editing, their multimedia projects. I offer my help on the clock via their taxes.

    I just think that many of these “library/librarian killer” arguments are mostly hypothetical and not really based on what I see happening at a public library every day. I DO believe that OTHERS believe these arguments (they are enticing on some level; I know how exciting technology can be), and I believe that these technology arguments are making it easier for governments and communities to defund libraries. If government officials can point to “expert arguments” from technology commentators (and ignore arguments from librarians), they have an easier time of convincing the people who don’t use libraries to lower the funds for them.

    1. Hi Justin,

      Yeah, I don’t think Helpouts are a library killer. Libraries have a unique role in their communities as a place developed by the community.

      What interests me is the possible, and I stress the word possible, affect Helpouts could have on the knowledge economy. Does the rate for legal advice drop, if I can get legal advice (that of course has been prefaced as not actual legal advice) from a third year law student? I don’t know, but it’s an interesting question.

      The question with libraries is separating the value-added personal interaction from the value-added access to expensive databases. One unique thing Helpouts does in this equation is add a payment layer.

      Google Helpouts aren’t going to put libraries out of business, but they may change how expert knowledge is valued. Or, they may not. We’ll see over time.



    1. Hi Rebecca,

      Can you please explain how my post is ridiculous and embarrassing? I’ve introduced a new technology and invited my readers to imagine possible ways Helpouts could affect the information economy. Further, I’ve tried to elicit discussion with the closing questions:

      What do you think of Google Helpouts? Is this one more step toward connecting people and overcoming the problems of search? Or, will Helpouts drastically affect the bottomline of experts in the information economy?

      Finally, I haven’t been dismissiveness of people, nor have I been judgemental. The idea coalescing through the comments and social media is that video reference may be a viable step for librarians and instructional technologists. And, most of all, that these real time services have come and gone before with no adverse affect on libraries.



      1. Your article is clearly arguing that Helpouts will be a threat to libraries and other information professionals. I’d quote specific lines but it’s such a short post that I don’t think it’s necessary. I am embarrassed there there seem to be a core group of cranky naysayer librarians out there that collectively scream in protest each time a “new” technology reveals itself. This mindset is reactionary, and damaging to our reputation.

        1. Hi Rebecca,

          I’ve invited you to engage in dialogue through a constructive conversation, but you don’t seem interested in that.

          Looking beyond information professionals, will Helpouts affect the knowledge economy? Could a law student or a nurse compete in the marketplace with a lawyer or doctor? How will the distinction between expert and creditaled expert be made? Will it matter?

          I’m not saying this is a threat, I’m imagining possible scenarios that could affect libraries. A potential benefit to libraries is an easy way to schedule video reference or instruction sessions for students. Imagine the possibilities at a large commuter campus.

          I’m sorry you are embarrassed for our profession, but if you took the time to gain a broader perspective of me before making judgements, you may find that I embrace libraries and creative ways in which they can use technology and expand services.



          1. Actually, it’s you who has refused to engage in a constructive debate about how these kinds of articles negatively affect our profession. Interestingly, your post is reactionary yet your comments appear to be unbiased and you’re asking good questions.

            I never said I was embarrassed of our profession. I’m embarrassed that smart people like you keep perpetrating this victim mentality in our profession. If you’re taking my post and comments personally then you don’t understand my argument. This isn’t about you.

            1. Hi Rebecca,

              I’ll share three posts with you that I’ve written in response to articles that attempt to dismiss libraries and the important role they play in their communities.

              The first post is: Dude Doesn’t Get Libraries.

              The second post is: Dumping on Libraries for Pageviews.

              And, the final post is: 5 Reasons Libraries Will Fail – Published in 1864.

              In your response, I didn’t realize we were talking about negative media regarding libraries. I thought we were talking about Google Helpouts. Furthermore, my post was the first data point in a conversation. The conversation has developed on many fronts now and people are considering potential benefits and risks associated with a new technology.

              In terms of taking your comments personally, I’m trying to be professional and respectful. I’m not using charged language. I haven’t called your writing or perspective ridiculous, nor have I been dismissive of you.



          2. This is an extremely far-fetched scenario. John sending an article under the table to a friend is one thing, but as soon as he starts openly charging for it the vendor providing the articles will come down on him like a ton of bricks.

            Now if John marketed himself as an open-access only researcher that might be another thing, but in that case he’s going to be limited in scope of what he can access.

            1. Hi Chad,

              It is a far-fetched scenario, but it’s worth thinking about. When I worked at an R1 institution, I’d be contacted a few times a month by friends and family asking that I send PDFs of articles, which they couldn’t access.

              There’s a system in place that places students and scholars at an unfair advantage. Will they wait for interlibrary loan, or will they post a message on Facebook asking for an article?



          3. Tim, I’m not totally sure what we’re talking about any longer so I suppose our discussion is over.

            P.S. – I know all about Michael Rosenblum’s article, and instead of trash-talking him all over the internet like so many other librarians did, I friended him on Facebook and invited him to submit his newly published book for consideration into my library’s collection. The fact that the wealthy have no idea why we need libraries in society is of serious concern – one that librarians shouldn’t dismiss so quickly.

            Anyway keep in touch, I think we could continue to have some fun debates!

          4. What an interesting post, and what an interesting new idea from Google. And I like the way you phrased it; the question is not so much about Helpouts threatening to destroy libraries as it is about making “what libraries do” more and differently accessible. So, looked at another way, it’s a chance to think about libraries as something more than just information delivery services, though of course information delivery and accessibility is at the heart of a good library’s mission.

            I think one interesting possibility to explore would be libraries building relationships with their communities–not just their campus communities, but the broader communities in which they are located. If the whole gist of Helpouts is that they can offer you help anytime, anywhere (sort of), then maybe one way to think about what distinguishes not-so-mobile libraries is their ability to offer something unique and place-based, whether that’s a really excellent space for study, a unique special collection that can be turned into an opportunity for campus/public outreach, a place to host book clubs and other literary amusements. I know so many campus libraries are already working really hard to build this kind of community buy-in, and I imagine this could be a strain on already stretched resources. And this isn’t necessarily the direction many schools want to move in–they want to be seen as nationally important institutions, not locally important institutions. Even so–and maybe especially so for institutions that don’t have the massive endowments needed to become nationally recognized–it seems like investing in those locally-based resources might be a good way to build some long-term resilience, not to say a distinctive brand.

          5. Just felt the need to say, I was disappointed in how the video about the service reinforces traditional gender roles. The women doing makeup, yoga, and making cakes. Men helping with photoshop and guitar skills. It would have been nice to see a little more “out of the box” thinking from google on the ad about how people might use the service. just sayin.

          6. The copyright police would have a field day with this. I can see Lexis-Nexis,for example, shutting down a library’s subscription if it discovered that users with access were distributing articles for a research fee — or just plain selling them outright. Helpouts are a fine idea as long as they do not violate the legal or ethical codes and guidelines for legitimate research. This could become a lot like research paper mills, just another away to avoid doing the leg work and think work yourself

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