Web Magazine for Information Professionals

Book Review: The University of Google

Judy Reading reviews a work that may engender considerable debate in months to come.

This book has generated a lot of discussion on the Internet which seems mostly to focus on Tara Brabazon's comments such as: 'Google offers easy answers to difficult questions. But students do not know how to tell if they come from serious, refereed work or are merely composed of shallow ideas, superficial surfing and fleeting commitments.' [1].

It is easy to find this discussion – just Google the author and/or title! [1][2]

Professor Brabazon's book is about more than the effects of Google on the study habits of students. She brings the depth of knowledge of a professor of Media [3] to a discussion of the effects of technology on our world. To pick out a few issues from the many she covers: she discusses the politics of our Internet still controlled by the US rather than the UN; and the effects of information technology on ordinary working people as jobs change - arguing that old class structures and life chances are being perpetuated by new style education and technology. She considers the effects of a combination of technological developments and recent historical, economic and political influences on Higher Education, with particular reference to the USA, Australia and the UK. She reflects on the continuing exclusion of working-class people, women, ethnic minorities and disabled people from education and the lack of support for people who need it during their time in education. Brabazon contends such exclusion persists despite the universities' rhetoric which while supporting 'widening access' and offering 'student-centred' curricula, tries to mask cost-cutting measures, and where new technologies are used to cope with increasing student numbers. She talks of the difficulties faced by academics as they struggle with an ever-increasing workload compounded rather than relieved by new technologies such as email. In her own case this workload is made heavier by a refusal to compromise on the quality of education offered students, despite staffing and budget cuts plus increased student numbers, together with an equal determination to find time to research and write.

It is a very dense academic book filled with evidence of her thinking and wide reading pulled from academic and popular sources but I found the revelations of the author's own story very engaging. She weaves in descriptions of life routines, battles with university administrators and discussions with individual students (usually in the form of student emails). Her prose style I also found compelling in places, for example, when discussing the 11 September 2001 attack in New York, she writes:

'Images still scar the mind: of skyscrapers sliced open like sardine cans, bilious black smoke erupting from concrete and iron, of grey streets and people, stained by tonnes of expelled paper, ash and dust' (p.194)

However most of the discussion she provokes is in relation to her comments about Google. Librarians are facing a radical challenge to their traditional role in Higher Education with students and academics turning to Google and Google Scholar rather than accessing research literature through their subscription journal indexes. If they find enough for their needs, does it matter that they are missing out on the gradually reducing proportion of peer-reviewed subscription material which is not open to Google to index? There is a lot that could be (and is) said here on both sides. From a librarian's perspective it is pleasant to hear Professor Brabazon championing the expertise of librarians in this book as gatekeepers to quality information sources; but in my opinion librarians will need to reinvent and realign their role if they are going to operate effectively in the Internet age.

The use of Google and Google Scholar does not mean that students and researchers are necessarily displaying a shallow approach to learning and research; it all depends on how they use what they find. Sophisticated researchers are likely to use a blended approach of Internet search engines as well as catalogues and subscription library databases [4]. Certainly our subscription databases have a lot to learn from Google's clever search engines in terms of user-friendly interfaces; the new generation of metasearch portals look to Google for inspiration. However Professor Brabazon's students are not all sophisticated and motivated researchers; to her exasperation some exhibit a shallow cut-and-paste approach and do not spend any time thinking about the information they find on the Web, either in terms of assessing its quality or thinking about and learning from the content (see, for example, p.20-1). She, quite rightly, wants to ensure that students have to read, reflect and learn from quality learning resources during her courses and has gone so far as forbidding the use of Google and Wikipedia; instead she expects her students to read a pack of materials supplied to them.

Cutting and pasting indiscriminately from Google Web searches is on a par with the disrespect for education shown in student behaviour such as missing lectures and tutorials and expecting afterwards to be able to catch up through reading copies of Powerpoint slides and notes. Professor Brabazon suggests that university administrators can compound the problem by insisting that students are able to substitute notes and slides for attendance and participation. The resultant drawback, she feels, is that students, especially those who are not motivated or who lack the skills to engage with the information, will not learn from the experience.

This book has some important things to say about what we should be doing to safeguard the quality of education, about what education is, its purpose, and how technology should be our servant not the servant of our masters. I recommend it strongly.


  1. White bread for young minds, says university professor Times Online, from The Times, 14 January 2008
  2. Google is white bread for the mind - inaugural lecture from Professor Tara Brabazon, University of Brighton News and events, 7 January 2008
  3. Professor Brabazon's Web site http://brabazon.net/
  4. Researchers and discovery services : behaviour, perceptions and needs / A study commissioned by the Research Information Network. RIN. November 2006

Author Details

Judy Reading
User Education Co-ordinator
Oxford University Library Services

Email: judy.reading@ouls.ox.ac.uk
Web site: http://www.ouls.ox.ac.uk/training

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