What are You Looking for?

As anybody who has done some work in a library can tell, searching and finding stuff can be complicated, to say the least. And very often the search for a thing ends in a deadend. Or so it seems.

Deadends of searches — finding ‘nothing’ –, are connected to a certain pattern of behaving and a set of pre-conceptions. For the start: Most people wrongly follow the way specialists in their field do: consulting bibliographies, bibliographies of bibliographies, data bases, etc. But in the most basic sense this is not the way the laymen starts his work. He shouldn’t follow the way of the specialist simply because he doesn’t have the knowledge of the field that can help him ascertain the quality of his finds. The specialist’s way of searching is a lonely way of walking through stuff he is able to screen simply by his year-long experince. The layman doesn’t have this.

Instead of searching the layman should and will rely on recommendation. In the last years bibliographical information has been enriched by user-comments that may help to find stuff in case one has a very limited idea of what one is searching for. Recommended lists are the first thing a layman can rely upon.

Having some experience in the field one may encounter a funny situation: One looks for one thing, but finds another equally or more interesting or important one.

The art of finding information is a very strange thing that has nothing to do with acurate links, bibliographical data, sematic web features, and the like. It is something one learns in a real library, walking through real rows of books, using a real card index …. and what is falling away more and more as all libraries modernize to electronic versions of their catalogues that aggravate searching one thing and finding another.

Often while looking for one thing one stumbles over something totally different. And that most often proves the more valuable and more precious. So the question becomes: Does it really matter to look for something specific or definite? Does the content of the search somehow influence the ‘random’ outcome that is different from what we’ve started with? Or is it the other way around and it’s not the content but the intensity of endeavour of the search? So that the content that we search for just helps keeping the focus attuned while we browse through the library or the catalogue, to lead us to the totally different, that we were already supposed to find but couldn’t imagine to find, because it was the end and not the beginning of the search? So the question becomes:

What do we search when we search?

My contention is: It is something different than information or data.

We are not looking for information or data. Of course, that is what our search starts with, but it’s only the medium that keeps us on track while we are pursuing the hunt. The information, the data, is never the interesting thing (even in the SMTs, I’d suggest), it’s what keeps us on track, but it’s not why we search, what we search, and what we hope to find.

We start with answers and try to find the question (or the questions) they are supposed to answer.

The data, the information we are looking for are abbreviations of an answer the question to which eludes us. The reason why searching one thing brings us to find something totally different is that we’ve found a new question resulting from the stuff we already knew. A new perspective, a new angle, a new way of setting the theme.

And in this regard modern cataloguing systems simply don’t work and don’t help. Even when they try by using meta-information as grouping- and sorting-mechanisms — they don’t deliver access to desired information because they miscreate the nature of search. Modern search-engines show this misguided concept of search pretty plainly. Search is not about information, it’s about questions. The right question, in the context of the searcher.

So all the endeavours to build better and better search tools simply bring upon the opposite: they don’t make stuff available, they at best hint to the amount of stuff we can not penetrate. And what they index, tag, or otherwise organize: they are not helping users to find something. Simply because they inhibit a proper search. No semantic or syntactic tool will alleviate this.


Postscriptum 2010.07.05 : I learned the english word for what I’m talking about: serendipity. Wikipedia.en has a nice article on this.


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