I’m still digesting the one-day meeting I participated in last week on The Future of Bibliographic Control. I’ve got a couple of follow-up thoughts coming from my presentation there. It was a very interesting meeting to be at as an outsider, to hear about a very deep, complex suite of issues that professionals in the field of library and information science are obviously passionately concerned about (and divided by).
The first additional thought I have concerns an aspect of search that I was referring to as “serendipidity”, which is a subset of what the professionals in the field refer to as “discovery”. Dan Clancy, the engineering director for Google Book Search, laid out some of the ways that Google thinks about bibliographic control and users (primarily through the lens of Book Search and Google Scholar in this context). I liked a lot of what he had to say, but my vague sense was that he was discussing how with Book Search, Google may be at the outer frontiers of where Google’s paradigm will continue to function properly. He was relaying the thoughts of one of his colleagues when he suggested that searching across a very diverse range of source materials may be a “dead end”, just as he was repeating a Google mantra when he said the User is King. (The obvious, and pretty fair, suggestion here is that for most library catalogs for most of their history, the user was an afterthought.)
What I think of as serendipidity has been the central driver of most of my online experiences, from reading the SFRT on GEnie to having a blog. It’s about the generative unsettling of one’s own established methods for seeking information and producing knowledge. Online tools, most definitely including various forms of search from Google to the Library of Congress catalog, help me veil myself from myself, help me find ideas and people and information sources that I wouldn’t or couldn’t find in my everyday institutional worlds.
So I worry a little about the idea that the singular driving force in catalog reform is to seat King User on his throne, to depose the wicked expert viziers who have kept the king from knowing what he wants to know. I worry that it replaces the wicked vizier with a fawning courtier. The thing is, sometimes users don’t know what they want to know. It isn’t necessarily that there’s an expert out there who knows better, but it might be that the user wants or needs to find something completely different than what they expected to find, or that their tentative articulation of intent is at odds with a desire that is unspoken and unknown even to the user himself or herself.
It all depends on what you’re trying to do, I agree. I made it clear that there are many contexts where I have very constrained expectations about what I expect to find through search, where serendipdity or unpredictability is not at all what I want. Then I expect to be King User, and woe betide the peasant interfaces and authority-category churls that try to get between me and my goal. But there are other times where I want search to be alchemy, to turn the lead of an inquiry into unexpected gold. I’m hoping that the rush to simplify, speed up, demystify and digitize search doesn’t leave that alchemy behind.