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SLA Europe – Google-isation of [Re]Search

SLA Europe hosted a fun and thought-provoking seminar on Wednesday 7 October. The speakers were Kathy Jacobs, Library and Information Manager at Pinsent Masons, Professor David Nicholas — Director of the Department of Information Studies at University College London and Professor Roger James, Director of Information Services at University of Westminster.

I found this evening particularly interesting because the talks were relevant to both the worlds I inhabit – that of information professional and that of postgraduate research student. I see very different sorts of research in these two worlds and the application of Google-like search in both. Roger James was a late stand-in, and his willingness to do so very welcome. His late participation is probably why I felt he did not quite understood his audience; some of his questions and underlying assumptions seemed to arise from believing we were all throwing our hands up in horror at the sight of someone using Google, or that we furtively use it ourselves – but only when no-one’s looking, as if it’s a guilty secret.

I was not sure whether comparing the academic environment with the professional library is a useful comparison: particularly when legal information is highly structured. Roger talked about the trade off between content creation: the cheap and easy user-created information; and curating costly content: managing the quality, expensive information. He suggested that part of our jobs as librarians is to ask when we should use the cheap information and why we should curate the expensive stuff.

Roger and David both suggested that we could use our systems more intelligently to find user data, to look at the search logs and see what users were doing in order to decide how best to meet their needs in the future. This gave me some ideas, it is true our last library survey was akin to getting blood from a stone.

Kathy Jacobs described Pinsent Masons’ implementation of a federated search platform from Solcara with a Google-esque interface. This does not require extensive training and is intuitive – but, by Kathy’s own admission, it is good for ‘quick and dirty’ searches only. What if one needs more in-depth research? We are, it seems, happy to accept complicated systems for room booking or cheque requests or time recording that ensure we enter and receive quality information, but as soon as we get near the internet we want it simple? No-one mentioned the words ‘dumbing down’ last night – and I think it is a simplistic explanation in itself – but I suspect there is a possibility that babies are being lobbed out with bathwater along the way. Bloomberg is fiendishly complicated and counter-intuitive (for example, different data sets require different actions to start a search) – but its ‘quirks’ seem to be accepted. Pinsents refused to work with any vendor that wouldn’t allow integration with their federated search system. Pragmatic, definitely, but what about the services they miss out on? Would they have replaced, for example, a hard copy set of law reports that had been binned in favour of online access if that online access was removed? Lots of questions I would like to ask Kathy another time.

One of the points Dave Nicholas made was that users had described academic search databases as empty, unfriendly, because one is not welcomed with the ‘people who read this, also enjoyed this…’ recommendations carried by Amazon and other commercial enterprises. His illustration was that in his early library experience the returned books trolley was rarely full, because the books on it are popular by the virtue of being read. I follow his logic, and I can see instances where trainee lawyers or undergraduates would find that kind of user-determined research trail helpful. However, with my PGR hat on I wonder whether going from recommendation to recommendation would be useful or whether one would ultimately fail to mine the depths of the information within a publication database? If one is undertaking a novel piece of research, would that not suggest that there would by definition not be a valid user-generated path to relevant research publications? We are all aware that although serendipity is our friend, often what is interesting is not be relevant and the further one gets away from one’s initial search intention, the more likely it seems that the interesting overtakes the relevant. I have not read the research in detail as published by David, so I will endeavour to find an answer to this question within it when I have a chance as I do have some of the unit’s work in my PhD library already. But rather than just accepting that libraries ought to follow this model because it works for Google, ought we to seek intelligent alternatives too?

The other question I found myself asking was how different groups of people, with different bodies of knowledge to investigate, may approach searching in different ways – because their ultimate needs are different. Legal information is formal and structured and there are right and wrong answers and there are what Kathy described  as ‘career limiting’ implications for those who do not understand this. What is good enough for an undergraduate is not sufficient for a trainee; nor is it for a PhD-level literature search. For some of these groups a Google search is a starting point not an end. This train of thought does lead to the argument about access points that was recently discussed over at Organising Chaos – if it is a starting point, maybe linking to some of a university’s online collection, what isn’t linked to won’t be found if students bypass the more formal systems. David quoted a figure of a 40% increase in use of physics journals once their content became visible to Google scholar.

Talking through these issues with new and old friends over a glass of wine was a good end to the evening. i suspect this blog entry has asked more questions about the event than described the event itself – check out other blogs: In Through the Outfield & TFPL) if you want to know more. Thank you to the speakers and the SLA events committee for such an enjoyable evening.

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