Thursday, 26 June 2008

ISKO event on information retrieval

Went along to some of the ISKO event on information retrieval today...

Brian Vickery was up first but unfortunately, I missed most of his talk. I did catch the last few minutes though where he asked some very pertinent questions:

  • What is the case for building classifications, thesauri and taxonomies? How does this relate to the needs of Communities of Practice?
  • Are the benefits of controlled retrieval languages strong enough to justify the effort and cost of creating/maintaining/using them?
  • Is there a growing need to harmonise or match terminologies?
  • What is the future for "universal" controlled languages and general classifications/ ontologies?

Next up was Stephen Robertson, giving a researcher perspective. He pointed out that although web search engines have been very successful, other systems cannot say the same - perhaps because the extensive machine learning available to Google et al just isn't feasible for a smaller setup. Roberston mentioned some useful sources of evidence in evaluating retrieval - notably click-throughs and "dwell time" (how long a user spends somewhere before returning to search results). There is some rich data out there but it is also "noisy".

Last up was Ian Rowlands who talked about the implications of the Google Generation report. He started with some context - insecurity around the power of Google, Yahoo branding; devaluing of the "library" brand; the hypothesis that the younger generation is somehow different. He referred to various pieces of research including Carol Tenopir's long-standing survey of academics. The bottom line of the Google Generation report is that it is a myth - yes, there is a type of user behaviour which is comfortable online but the Google Generation is not a homogenous mass of people - "silver surfers" (another irritating term!) demonstrate characteristics too and there are also "digital dissidents" among younger generations who are shunning technology. So, the general message is to stop thinking of our users as fixed targets who fit some kind of stereotype. We need to understand user behaviour much better, in particular, online reading - but then, how much do we really understand about how people read/absorb information in print? How can we be sure what we learn about online reading is peculiar to an online environment and isn't just typical of reading in whatever format?

Rowlands also suggested that we need to help users form "mental maps" of information - typically, when you walk into a library for a print resource, you have a reasonably good image of what you are expecting to find - the same can't be said of the web. There is a message for librarians here to help create easier access to information for users e.g. through less confusing terminology. Information literacy is key but research seems to suggest that unless individuals learn from a young age, the changes possible in user behaviour are more limited. There have been studies demonstrating a correlation between information literacy and academic grades.

Rowlands finished with a plea to understand our users better - stop thinking of them as one big mass which can be served by a one size fits all solution and learn from the commercial world, where customers are segmented and can follow a number of routes to information - though, I have to say, the commercial world doesn't always get it right either and they have greater resource at their disposal.

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