June 29, 2009
Searching, Browsing, Print & the Internet
Last week’s SHARP conference gave me a lot to think about and more to post about, so let me apologise for the over-ambitious post-title you see above. I don’t mean to encompass the total sum of all current debates in book culture in one post. Don’t panic, this really is a lot more brief than it appears.
One of the more interesting/infuriating things about reading texts online, whether they be books, newspapers, blogs or articles is finding them. One of the great limiting agents of internet-based information is the search engine. It isn’t that search engines don’t find things, it is more that they find too much, often unrelated, information organized in a haphazard fashion. You, the user, then have to go back again and again searching for new things.
Consider my recent attempts to identify a strange little bug I found on my couch. Where once I would have turned to my Peterson Field Guide to the Insects of North America, instead I thought, “I’ll look it up online”. First I searched for “small black beetle Ontario”. Then “Identifying Ontario Beetles”. “Identify Ontario bugs”. “List of Ontario bugs”. “List of Ontario beetles”. “Is this a bedbug?” “Field Guide to Insects”. “Ontario Insects”. Etc.
Nothing I found was of any help at all. It isn’t that I now doubt that there is any information on insects on the internet. It’s just that I haven’t managed to hit on the exact tags that the unfound resource has used. Google does a valiant job of suggesting, refining, elaborating and extending your parameters, but this does not always result in a successful search. Furthermore, a search for “Ontario beetles” and “Identifying Ontario Insects” will yield entirely different results, despite their being very similar topics, probably both relevant to a person looking for information on the subject. But someone searching for one will not get the results of the other.
While at SHARP I had the priviledge of attending a paper given by Paul van Capelleveen of the National Library of the Netherlands entitled “Books will be Books”. For twenty very amusing minutes he showed us slide after slide of Wikipedia screenshots, all on entries relating to Book History in six different languages. The crux of his paper was not, as is usually the complaint with Wikipedia, that the information found was lacking or incorrect (though it was and it was), but that the information was totally different depending on what language you searched for the information in, and that there were few, if any, cross-references between the different language papers. So, someone searching for “Book History” in English will yield the title of a Journal and a redirect to the History of the Book article, a strange and meandering piece covering 9,000 years of history in about 1,000 words. The French entry, meanwhile, contains some articles translated from the English (or vise versa; I see the English entry refers to early printed books as “incunables” rather than “incunabula” – likely a literal translation from the French entry) while other sections are left out entirely, or relaced by different subheadings and articles. Meanwhile a search for “History of Writing”, “Old books” and “History of Literature” will yield whole new articles, not all of which are cross-referenced.
While van Capelleveen’s language distinction is interesting, I think this is just one more thing that highlights the problem with digital information retrieval. I have the same issues when I use The Toronto Star online, or Amazon.com. If I don’t know what I am looking for, I won’t always find what’s on offer. What they call “browsing” is just another form of searching, one where they allow that you might not know the exact title, but you still otherwise know what you want.
People tell me that computers now have that ability to link information in a more relational way, the way a librarian might. So, when you go to the library to look up book on Ontario bugs, you go to the Entomology subject and you find everything on bugs, from Field Guides to biology texts, whether they are titled A Field Guide to Insects or Creepy Crawley. And, similar subjects are nearby in case you have a slightly tangental issue. Newspapers work similarly; if I want to read about “Sports” I go to the Sports section and it’s all there, whether I know what team, game or athelete I am looking for or not. Do search engines help me thus yet?
Someone help me out here, because I haven’t figured it out yet. And it doesn’t look like the users of Wikipedia have either, as Paul van Capelleveen’s research shows so far. If all information really is going digital, this is top of my laundry list of requests. I need the pathing of a human guide, a librarian, an editor. Our language(s) haven’t standardized terminology yet, and probably never will. Do we all need advanced degrees in search parameters? I wonder.