I don't remember exactly where I saw it; but a while ago, on a T-shirt or a coffee mug or an online discussion list or somewhere, I ran across a catchy little slogan: "Librarians: The Best Search Engines"--or words to that effect.
At first I thought it was kind of cute and harmless. It's facile, to be sure, and I've subsequently seen it elsewhere; it's certainly not widespread (perversely, I did a little web searching for variants and didn't find very much). Even so, that phrase has stayed with me over the months and I thought it might be worth poking at it a bit to see what lurks beneath.
First of all, it raises the question: What is a search engine? The American Heritage Dictionary gives us this: "A software program that searches a database and gathers and reports information that contains or is related to specified terms." Fine; if you asked most normal people what a search engine is, I think they'd say something like "a place to find stuff on the Web" or "that little box you type words into."
Maybe it's just me, but I don't see the obvious comparisons between that and what a librarian does. To be sure, both are ways to get answers to questions; so in a sense both librarians and search engines are "answerers." It does seem an odd parallel, though; we never got ourselves compared (much less compared ourselves) to databases, catalogs, reference books, or the like.
I think I know where this notion comes from: Some librarians, not without justification, might see search engines as competition. It's not at all difficult to look at the rise of free and easy Internet searching and the simultaneous and sometimes precipitous drop in reference statistics and put two and two together. And that may well be a big part of what's going on. So why not portray ourselves as the preferred alternative, in the same ballpark?
Because it's dangerous, that's why. Sure, you can get an answer out of Vivisimo or Teoma, and you can also get an answer out of one of your local public library's telephone reference service. The answer from Vivisimo might even be faster. (It might even be right.) But it'll also be mindless. And unconcerned with quality, evaluation, instruction, …