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?