The decision to link one’s content to another website can be long, drawn-out, resource-consuming choice. When NPR decided to “provide links” to retailers to ” mak[e] it easy to purchase CDs or books that NPR highlights”, its ombudsman wrote a long article justifying its practice. In it, we learn that NPR began linking to commercial retailers in pieces where reviews for the books or music appear only after tests with focus groups conclude that NPR’s readers did not find the links to be “ethically problematic”. Similarly, the New York Times had to defend its linking policy and promise to better police its bloggers to “avoid creating a commercial preference”.
This blog is no national media outlet that dominates the public discussion. Accordingly, I feel no civic duty to agonize over whether I’m unfairly favoring some websites by linking to them. I also feel no conflict of interest in providing links to commercial outfits because I earn commensurately zilch from those links. With that said, I do make the decision to link to Amazon and Google Books instead of WorldCat or individual libraries’ catalogs deliberately.
My reason is simple (-minded?): I think Amazon and Google Books provide better and more relevant information for most readers of this blog than do WorldCat or my local library online catalog (OPAC). Generally speaking, the for-profit sites contain more information designed to sell users on the experience of reading the book — these places feature professional and personal reviews, information about the author, searchable sample text, books-like-this recommendations — whereas OPACs and to a lesser extent, WorldCat, take it for granted that users have already settled on reading the book and so concentrate their effort on giving information about that particular work. For instance, the nonprofit sites give information on the location and availability of the books at the libraries and provide other pieces of metadata. As I have no reason to think that you have decided to read whatever book it is that I’m blogging about, it’s much more appropriate for me to link to the former kind of sites.
A long P.S.: I will also take this opportunity to point out that while the absence of some features on the OPACs and to a lesser extent, WorldCat, reflects smaller operating budgets (for instance, some OPACs have maddeningly non-robust search algorithms), other differences are the result of deliberate decision making on the part of the non-profit organizations. An example is the lack of book recommendations on many OPACs and the WorldCat site. This functionality, as I was told by a professor, was left out due to concerns for privacy. Libraries do not want to track what readers have browsed what records, and so they collect no data on which to make recommendations along the lines of “users who view this books also looked at the following other books; maybe you want to look at these other books too?”. I’m of the opinion that this is a poor trade-off. Surely the needed data can be anoymized so that they reflect only aggregate statistics that compromise no user’s identity. To make recommendations of the type I describe previously, an information manager would only need to know what proportions of people view another tome after perusing the record for this one; he does not need to collect information on who those viewers are. Surely this is one of those rare cases where we can have our cake and eat it too? What am I missing? Why haven’t we seized such an opportunity?