Monday, January 25, 2010

Media: The Power of Search

TORONTO, ONTARIO - Recently, a friend referred me to a paper he had written that had been published in a journal, providing me with the bibliographic information for the paper. It turned out that the Toronto Public Library actually had access to this journal on-line, so I didn't even need to go to the library to read it. However, as I tried to find the exact issue containing his paper in the on-line interface, I found that the sorting was not what I would have expected and it appeared that maybe the issue I was supposed to be looking for by volume number and issue number was somehow missing. Then, I decided to try the search box, entering the title of the paper and the author's last name, and it came right up. I never did find the link to the issue, but it didn't really matter since I already had what I wanted. I would even speculate that the library had put effort into making the search function work well, and figured everyone would use that so didn't bother much with the drill-down interface.

The quality of electronic searches in the Google era can be astounding at times. I should have seen the phenomenon coming when I did a research paper as a university freshman years before Google was founded. Most of my peers in the class used a number of sources for their paper that could be counted on their digits (perhaps including their feet). In the course of the project, I discovered that I had access to the LexisNexis through the university, and since I was writing about a topic related to health care reform, a hot topic at the time, there were hundreds of relevant references to read and sort through in the news articles and transcripts of the times. In the end, I cited more than fifty references in the paper. The instructor was blown away and didn't know what to say.

Today, a student approaching a similar assignment wouldn't even need access to LexisNexis or an equivalent service; he or she could just use Google News. There's rarely a need to head for the card catalog anymore, or to peruse the printed meta-indexes of scientific journals so common in the past.

One doesn't even need to keep files organized on one's own computer anymore. I still keep careful indexes of the railroad locomotives I see, but if I want to know if I've already seen a specific one, I no longer go to the indexes first. Apple's "Spotlight" search is so good that I just put the locomotive's reporting marks in the search field and I get a list of all the files with those reporting marks in them, and since those files are named using the year in question, I know approximately when I last saw the locomotive without even opening any of the files. Sometimes, that's all I want to know.

Of course, the problem with these searches providing exactly what one is looking for is that serendipitous discovery rarely happens. The article on new health technology in a magazine next to the article on health care reform doesn't appear in the search results. The author's articles on topics other than health care reform don't come up either, in most cases. The research effort becomes a niche media exercise, much like deciding only to watch FOX News or MSNBC.

As the e-reader brings search into the education process through digital textbooks annotated with searchable notes as discussed recently on this blog, the capability may bring a lot of convenience. However, it also brings the danger of losing the critical thinking involved in understanding where a concept belongs in the big picture, the kind of thing one discovers when trying to find information without the help of a search engine.

No comments: