The benefits of uncertainty over privileging in “known item” searching

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“As we organize, we must be mindful that organization, while useful, can also be a trap. The trick is to organize just enough to create order and meaning, but not so much that you become enslaved by process.”
— Jessamyn West

Strange things start happening when you limit your search to particular branch locations in our resource discovery layer. An inquiry for “beer” within our Special Collections yields 62 records. The facets on the results page show how you can further refine that list to 18 items which are also in the general stacks. To be clear, we have a total of 651 matches for “beer” in the general stacks, however the initial restriction prevents most of those titles from appearing.

Aside from the question of why those 18 redundant purchases were made in the first place, this is a potentially confusing representation of our complete holdings. Similar discrepancies occur when you filter results by format. Besides, if you want information about beer, why constrain your search by location or medium anyway?

Searching for “known items” (i.e., tracking down a specific citation) can be even more frustrating, at least for those accustomed to the isolated coverage and precision provided by online catalogs of yesteryear — where you could preemptively restrict the scope of your search to certain collections, while also constructing a query based on Boolean operators, left-anchored title phrases, or even MARC fields. A novice searcher, who for example didn’t know to exclude initial articles in a title search, had little luck in getting the most out of those tools, and often turned to the open web instead.

As library finding aids have evolved to embrace the Google way of offering a more intuitive search experience, complete with a fuzzy interpretation of search commands, including query enrichment and search expansion rules, it is, oddly enough, the skilled and advanced researchers, including librarians, who find themselves unable to use a discovery layer to get what they want, or at least what they think they want in the exact way they want it. A library school faculty member can apparently not figure out how to use a site that Freshmen have no problems with.

I have yet to hear a single undergraduate complain about how many and combined or extraneous results their searches retrieve. It is more the generation raised on command line searching, who were taught to always aim for 10–30 hits, that are agitated by the way results are now merged. For librarians, the specter of disintermediation, when it comes to providing less convoluted instructions, may be at play. As put by Upton Sinclair, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.”

The entire purpose of federated searching platforms, lest we forget, was getting rid of content silos, and the enormous inefficiencies people desiring to conduct comprehensive searches were faced with at the time. Now that we have a simple, single search box, for the most part, providing an index of “Everything,” a few of us seem reluctant to embrace the revised methods required for using it to our full advantage. You see this in everything from a vendor’s claim that offering their metadata in a competitor’s discovery product would “harm library research,” to the peculiar attempt of effectively bringing back those clunky tabbed search boxes from previous decades by providing so-called “bento box” style results, divided by material type.

It’s just a matter of offering a faster and friendlier means to an end. The transition from pre-search to post-search delimiters basically removes, quite often, a step in the research process.

Old method:

  1. Connect to an advanced search interface, and set search limits
  2. Conduct a restricted search
  3. Obtain desired item

New method:

  1. Conduct an “Everything” search
  2. [Filter results, if necessary]
  3. Obtain desired item

The more streamlined procedure also allows for greater accidental discovery of similar items. This is a key point. People don’t always know what they are looking for, even if they think they do. There may well be a similar title, or one at a closer library, that would better fit their needs, for instance. The excessive precision of limiting searches beforehand is therefore not only unnecessary, but potentially harmful. We should also rethink the false dichotomy of there being two distinct types of information needs: “I know exactly what I want, other than how to access it” and “I have no idea what I’m looking for, other than my topic.”

Let’s examine the case of journal title searching with the different steps defined above. The paragon example of a difficult-to-find journal is Science. You can go to our Journals A-Z list, search or browse for that title, and the desired records come up first. Or, you can instead and more quickly type in the identical query to our all-purpose search box, and get the same thing. Perhaps people are assured by searching only journal titles, or they are more comfortable relying upon the same order of operations as when they first learned how to do library research. But that’s the problem.

Furthermore, why should patrons be searching by journal names in the first place? If anyone is looking for a specific article, searching on that title or author, usually as keywords, is a more direct route to the item in question. For those wanting to regularly browse current issue tables of contents, alert services exist for that sort of thing. And although someone may only want to poke around in the hopes of serendipitously finding publications of interest, that is obviously a woefully ineffectual way of searching, given today’s technology.

Improvements to search engines have decreased the amount of time required to obtain quality results, but only so long as people adapt to use the newer accompanying methodologies. But who are we to tell anyone they’re doing things the “wrong” way? If a new procedure can save time in the long run, it’s worth a little tough love to get people on board with it, even if that entails upsetting a fraction of your user base by removing familiar yet obsolete interfaces. This is at least partially why we don’t provide a card catalog, shelf lists, or older versions of our OPAC anymore.

Once any new system emerges as better (arguably measured by effectiveness, ease of use, or patron satisfaction) than the one currently in place, it becomes prudent to eliminate its predecessor. Esoteric search applications require greater training, cause cognitive overload, and are becoming progressively less efficient when compared to modern discovery systems.

Now, for those of you reading this, after testing out the Science example above, who were both disappointed that it worked and instantly thought, “I bet I can find one that doesn’t!” … well, the same could be said of pretty much any technique. Nothing is perfect. We are striving for the best overall experience for the largest number of users. Seeking out such exceptions and dealing with individuals who complain can give one a skewed perception of how well services function, and we thereby end up artificially inflating the limitations of new ways for using a library.

Not only is the fact that some journal titles may not always be the top result beside the point, since it still saves time on average, this kind of rebuttal betrays a pessimism that’s really telling about how biased against change many librarians have become. I wish we wouldn’t always be so gleeful to come across shortcomings in new products designed to make everyone’s life a little easier, and instead showed a bit more faith in the future.

Opposition to progress is sadly nothing new. At the turn of the century, librarian scholars lambasted digitization for the way it haphazardly provided access. Wikipedia was later widely reviled as well, largely I believe because it undercut, along with the web in general, our exclusive hold on controlling the distribution of information. Similar critiques are now being made about linked data.

When we retreat to antiquated technologies and retain elitist practices, while also quibbling about cataloging standards and information literacy frameworks, a steady stream of librarians is ever calling it quits due to our intransigence. My patience is wearing thin as well. We’ve had Primo in production since Fall of 2013, which means I’m now in my fifth year of having discussions with colleagues where I make the contentious point that two steps are better than three.

This is not how a profession survives. In the words of Leon C. Megginson, “According to Darwin’s Origin of Species, it is not the most intellectual of the species that survives; it is not the strongest that survives; but the species that survives is the one that is able best to adapt and adjust to the changing environment in which it finds itself.”

Further Reading

Check out my other posts for related commentary.

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