Google’s War On Hierarchy, Alert The Librarians

Via Ernie Miller I saw a link to John Hiller‘s story about Google’s War on Hierarchy, and the Death of Hierarchical Folders. Googlization is a concept libraries have been strugling with for a while. And while it’s hard to say wether the change is good or bad, I can say that failure to change makes libraries irrelevant among patrons who’ve grown accustomed to Google and other exemplary services. So John’s story caught my eye and had my full attention for a while.

John doesn’t mention libraries in his story, but anybody who spends much time in a library would do well to read it anyway.

Hierarchy is such an important concept to libraries that the story will take a little longer to read and appreciate than most, but the fact remains that Google has long ago eliminated DMOZ directory results from its searches and Yahoo! did the same in November 2004.

John points to email and desktop file organization as two other areas where Google is leading the charge against hierarchy with the command: “Search, don’t sort.” We haven’t seen all the fruit shake out of these trees, but Gmail is already an enormously successful service, in no small part because of it’s rich (and folder-less) web interface and excellent search capabilities.

I gave up trying to folderize my own email a few years ago, and now simply archive it annually. But I have some hefty skepticism for desktop search and the arguments against hierarchical filesystems. After all, can you imagine giving up your carefully organized folders of documents? John can, and more importantly, announcements from Google and Microsoft, and the recent release of Apple’s Tiger OS with Spotlight — “find anything, anywhere, fast” — search features suggests they can imagine it too.

Hierarchical Folders have helped us manage information for decades. They’ve proven themselves as some of the most flexible tools ever created: organizing wildly different industries, from Web Directories, to Email and Desktop File Systems.

But Folders rarely solve the core problem that they address — and often create new ones, like forcing you to create new folders just to manage new information. Solutions like Search, Archives, Stars and Labels get more directly at the core problem… and promise that the future of information management will look very different from its past.

Lesson: Libraries are being setup for a grand culture clash as patrons who grew up with flat information structures face library systems steeped in hierarchy. The difficulties we have in helping our patrons differentiate between the dozens of “search” boxes on or linked to our websites now are going to get worse. Much worse. Issues like vendor incompatibility and single sign-on have to be addressed now so we can begin the real integration work. We need to start demanding XML interfaces from our vendors so we build interconnected services that shorten the distance between inquiry and answer.

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