Monthly Archives: February 2005

Search Strings and Information Literacy

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I must admit, I started scanning my referer logs for search strings because a lot of them were pretty funny. I started posting them (and sending them to one of my non-blog-reading friends) because I thought they were funny.

“You could get funding for that,” my friend of mine said. I thought she was kidding.

But I’m starting to see the value of the pursuit (aside from pure enjoyment). A couple of days ago I was reading over the OCLC environmental scan. While there were lots of elements of the executive summary that were interesting and compelling, a couple of items on the same page, caught my eye. One: “Users DO know what they’re doing!” quoting an unnamed “industry pundit”. The summary reads: “surveys confirm that information consumers are pleased with the results of their online activites. In 2002, for example, Outsell, Inc. studied over 30,000 U.S. Internet information seekers and found that 78 percent of respondents said the open Web provides most of what they need.”

Do users know what they’re doing?

“Weird things to do at work”
“how to say i love you”

“mother can’t stay”

“you have to go to school to be a librarian”

We’ve learned from our own research that a library patron will be pleased with poor reference service as long as the librarian is “nice”. That niceness doesn’t just apply to people. You can have a “nice” interface and an “unnice” one as well. There is nothing less friendly than a search engine that gobbles up your query and spits back a goose egg. Sorry, it seems to say. Your question was just too stupid. While the OCLC scan notes that “satisfaction” with the internet is high among users, this doesn’t mean that it’s actually providing them with what they’re looking for. It doesn’t mean the user even feels that it does. I suspect what it means is that the user feels empowered; the user plugs in a question and something comes back out. It doesn’t mean he or she actually knows what to do, or how to get the best results. My short wander through the world of search strings has certainly taught me that.

Some users, of course, really do know what they’re doing:

“How to make love like” download file
(resume|resume|CV|vitae) 1991…2005 ~job ~wizard program~ mysql programming

But for the most part, what scanning search strings over time have taught me is that most users don’t understand what Google (or MSN, or yahoo, or the various other search engines) actually are. Or how they work.

“where does debbie travis live?”
“girls stripping in nightclubs”

“Emily: someday i hope u get the chance to live like u were dying 1/4 says: hey do u wanna do one thing today, like shopping, loopy”

“harvard slut diary”

While librarians have created and fueled this information literacy engine, aiming to teach users the difference between a keyword, a subject search, an academic journal and a blog, my search strings seem to indicate that many users have absolutely no clue. Full questions, with punctuation, are typical; short phrases describing what something is in their minds but not what it’s likely to be called are par for the course. These aren’t keywords or subjects. People are telling Google what they want to see, and Google’s algorithm gets them close enough. Google’s algorithm doesn’t require a user to understand the depths of information management and categorization. You can ask Google a question and Google will give you an answer.

Does the user know what they’re doing? I’d say no. They don’t understand the algorithms involved, but then again neither do I. What they do understand is that they can confront the clean, clear, friendly Google search screen and ask a question, and that they will get an answer, even if it’s not necessarily a good one. Isn’t this exactly what happens at the reference desk? User satisfaction comes from the sense of having been helped, that someone is there for them to lean on, that someone tried. Satisfaction is not necessarily dependent on the quality of the output.

So what do we do?

The OCLC environmental scan summary talks about the “twilight zone” of the internet, the chaos of documents and information, and how that frightens traditional librarians used to organized and carefully sorted stacks. It questions how libraries, as highly structured information spaces, can wade into the internet without imploding. To date it seems that our approach has been to try and bend the internet to our wills; we develop metadata systems to filter information back to us in predictable ways, we encourage students to learn about the broader and narrower terms, flip through the subject headings, be fearful of keywords and use them carefully. We try to impose order on the chaos. The internet is, after all, just another version of the information world that existed before. What Google has done is to take the order out of it. There is and there need be no real order to queries typed into Google. Type in a question, use punctuation, tell me what you’re looking for, in your words. The work of parsing that query, taking out the punctuation, removing excess words (and, I, the), trimming it down to a set of keywords and running the search on the database is done by the algorithm. Rather than trying to train the users, perhaps we should take a page from Google’s book and just train our systems better.

Not to say that information literacy is pointless. Information literacy is very important, but I think there are other ways to get there. Do we want users to be literate about subject headings, or literate in the ebb and flow of information around them? Embrace the chaos, or marshall it into the DDC?

Users don’t appear to understand that Google is a keyword-driven database system. When they speak to Google, they speak to the World Wide Web, that monster under the sea that inches up onto the shores in places and devours whatever it sees. That beast that shifts depending on the beholder, that grows larger with every passing second and may one day take over the world. It breathes in pictures, newspaper articles and bank statement information and coughs out ones and zeroes. It is information without knowing anything. Ask it a question and see which tentacle slithers up on the shore. Anything that translates that morass for you has got to be your friend. Helping students to communicate with the World Wide Web, both as a searcher and as a content provider, might be the greatest gift we can offer.

Much as I mock the strings, one of the things I need to remember is that information searching is a process, not necessarily a one time event. You can sit in front of a Google search all day and type in variations on a question. What I see might be a first try. Searching the internet is like drawing; you sketch out the general shape first, look at it, consider it, and start filling it details here and there. And if it doesn’t look like what you were expecting, there’s always another blank page underneath. No one’s keeping score. It doesn’t matter if you need to try 10 times before you find something you want. And maybe that’s why users as satisfied with their current internet searching; there’s no one peering over your shoulder watching you. You have all the time in the world to keep trying. And no matter what stupid questions you ask, it will always give you something in return. It tries. And really, who can ask for more?

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell

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Since I finished library school, I’ve had this hankering to read fantasy fiction. Not just fantasy, but high fantasy. I want to read something where an entire universe has been created by the author, where people may not even be human and have weird and wonderful abilities. I wanted magic as high up as magic goes. While I listened to my teachers tell me that genre is not a “lesser” form of reading and is nothing to be ashamed of, still deep in my gut I feel a little embarrassed about it. I have a degree in English. For years I refused to read anything that wasn’t Canadian literary fiction (because who else is going to read nothing but Canadian literary fiction?). I have become something of a literary snob.

Except for these strange forays into out and out fantasy fiction, the kind with ugly covers that sit by the romance novels at the library. These are the ones that don’t even come out in hardcover half the time. The kind of books my sister looks at and says, “I don’t like stories about talking animals.” Those are the ones I want.

I am really trying to get over this snobbery about fantasy fiction. Having taken a stab at writing it, I understand that it’s no more or less difficult to write than literary fiction, and much of it is as well-written (or better) and filled with excellently drawn characters. Fantasy fiction stories stick closer to the general rules of writing, including complex plot mapping and so forth. There have been a few (famous) literary fiction books I have started and put down again because I found the style of writing sloppy, repetitive (in that ooo look what a pretty sentence that was! way), and tedious. I have the upmost respect for the fantasy fiction writers I know personally, so I don’t know what the chip on my shoulder is all about.

My sister gave me Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell for Christmas. I’ve talked about this book before, but I’ve never really reviewed it properly. I needed it to sit in me for a while and trickle through my brain.

Honestly, this book is such a work of art. I’ve never read anything remotely like it. Susanna Clarke wrote the book as if it were a 19th century novel, and this actually doesn’t get tired. She not only uses the turns of phrase but also shies away from the sorts of topics that a 19th century novelist would shy away from; there is no overt sexuality in the book, and romance is all implied rather than explicit. I often felt that I was getting a very particular view on these characters, and missing out on other things, but I felt that that was just as it should be, given the nature of the narrative voice. And as a good 19th century novel would do, the narrative voice is granted character status in its own right. Rather than becoming distracting, the style and structure of the book makes you feel closer to the action rather than distanced from it. The long, roundabout, loping narrative style, not particularly episodic but not following a strict line to a single climax either, also feels right at home in the 19th century setting. But of course since it’s also set in England and involves magic, it’s been compared to Harry Potter. Just like how Pride and Prejudice and Bridget Jones are like, OMG the same book.

What I really like best about a good bit of fantasy fiction in when the author manages to weave the magic in so that it becomes something you just accept, like horse-drawn carriages in a historical novel. Strange and Norrell introduces you to the concept of magic as if it’s the concept of philosophy or history, or some odd form of metaphysics no one particularly cares about. For a good portion of the book the real cause of conflict isn’t magic or some otherworld or anything else, it’s just the stubborn nature of academics and the danger of having too much information in the hands of a single person. For a good portion fo this book I felt that it was really story for a librarian, all about access to information and the danger of withholding it. There is even a cautionary tale in there about withholding information that the experts deem “bad” or “wrong”.

But what sticks with me most about the book is the weird commonplaceness of the magic. The cruelest magic, I think, is the kind is that meshes your world with another, but only allows some people to see it. The eeriest parts of this book are when a complete innocent mentions seeing something so critical to the main characters, the answer to everything they need to know, but has no idea that anything magical has gone on at all. The danger of this innocent meandering between one dagerous world and another, always on the brink of enchantment or destruction; just the inching possibility of real damage is such a powerful narrative tool. It could get boring. It could get tired, sitting there all the time with this possibility but less dramatic action. When you can imagine worse than it is, that’s not great for a book. But somehow this book manages to avoid that pitfall.

And who would have thought that the auditory could have such an impact in text? This book has recurring sounds that just send chills down your spine when you “hear” them. A good book, fantasy or not, lets codes a sight, a sound, or a word so completely that when they casually introduce them throughout the story the reader is instantly flooded with the coded sensation; relief, fear, or anticipation.

In thinking about about Strange and Norrell, it seems to me that where the book really soars is in its horror elements. I never thought I was one to go for horror elements, but this book impressed me.

Improving the Patron

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If you accept, as I do, that the library is not merely a depository or a portal, not merely a collection of books and newspapers and microfilm, an repository of externally produced ideas, thoughts, information and argument, but also a set of in-house services and information tools to support not only the collection, but also the universe of knowledge in general, you run into the question: how can the library best order and present that information and those services? If you’re not just a repository, what are you? What’s your mission?

Many librarians and many individuals believe in the value of objectivity. We must not, after all, collect with an eye to a particular political agenda or opinion. We must not gear our libraries to a particular brand of person. We should not highlight one book over another (though displays certainly do this), recommend one opinion over another (though surely this is, in the end, the primary task of the reference librarian), or appear to take a particular side in a political debate (though the ALA is often guilty of this). A library, these objectivity lessons teach us, is a place of universal knowledge, where the ideas, opinions, and values of the patron lead them to the books of their choice. The library is a unique resource for each person, viewed through the prism of their goals and preferences, tailored to their requirements. The library itself should not impose anything upon the patron. In this way, the patron shapes himself; the library helps the library to create his own views. The librarian and her wooly opinions do not shape the patron.

The flip side: reading the paper every morning makes me angry. Watching people who’s opinion differs so painfully from my own get so much air time and column space is enough to do that, but what truly angers me is the ignorance that’s ruling the day. Ignorance played such a significant role in the last American election (with such a large proportion of Republican voters hoodwinked into believing that Saddam Hussein, along with Osama Bin Laden, was responsible for the destruction of the World Trade Center in 2001). Ignorance of history, the nature of our constitutional democracy, and the value multiculturalism and pluralism are currently leading to a lot of anxiety and fear mongering.

So I start thinking: what if the libraries addressed societal ignorance in a very upfront, in your face way? What if the libraries started putting together displays, speaker sessions, question and answer periods, countering the ignorance in the news with actual facts? Right now in Canada the history of marriage has become a hot topic. Most of the politicians don’t understand that history, but enjoy discussing it in colourful terms all the same. What if the libraries were to support counter-intelligence? Is that political? Is it political even if it’s just about correcting misinformation?

Of course this isn’t limited to the same-sex marriage issue. What about Islam? When suddenly “Islamic extremist” became the buzzword of the moment, isn’t it part of the role of the library to provide information on Islam, which is a peaceful faith with a vibrant intellectual history, right in the front of the library, as a display?

What if the reference question isn’t limited to the individual patron at all? What if the librarian were to listen to the community as a whole, and address the issues that are rising and attempt to meet them with real, supported, “unbiased” information? Should the librarian be listening to the radio, watching TV, reading the papers, and providing information where misinformation is clouding people’s judgment? In order to function, after all, a democracy needs an informed citizenry. Where the Muslims are being confuses with terrorists, provide displays, speakers, interactive tutorials, information for the community to help them sort out the difference. Put it in their face. Make it impossible to ignore. We will not let you become bigots, the signs will shout. We will provide you with the information you need to be good, caring, decent people. When the devout of a community are being rabble-roused by ambitious politicians with threats of a loss of church autonomy, a session explaining the nature of the proposed laws, how such threats are empty, would seem to be in order. While the classical sense of objectivity may be compromised, the goal of objectivity remains; the populace should have the whole picture, not just the propaganda. When the press, the politicians, and the preachers are spouting lies and misunderstandings, who must step up to add a modicum of truth to that mix?

Ah, righteous fury. How I enjoy getting riled up by it.

I’ve been helping to edit an article that my friend is writing that touches on these issues from a historical perspective. She writes about the goals of the librarian, and seen through her research, I’m lead to an uncomfortable place with my righteous ire. How is this different from the ancient idea of improving (or taming) the working class? They will read what we give them to read, we will mold and fashion these folks into something respectable. We accept the role of the librarian as an educator on some level; but how far should that teaching role go? We shouldn’t be aiming to “improve” the people, right? We turn our noses up at this sentiment. (Though, we accept that we are “improving” people by making them readers early on; we are “improving” the literacy of babies by providing picture books, aren’t we?) We’re supposed to give people want they want. We are resurrecting genre fiction, we will look down our noses at a librarian who avoids leading people to the Danielle Steeles or who hides the Sweet Valley High book truck from the tweens (we used to do this when I was a page at the public library). We shouldn’t judge people by what read. We shouldn’t presume to dictate “good” and “bad” fiction for them. And yet we still judge by filtering our collection with our respect for good scholarship and with our collection policies. Fiction is one thing. Non-fiction pushes us back out of postmodern sleepiness and into rock solid reality. Yes and no, truth and lies. There is still an element of “improving” involved, isn’t there? Is this a good thing?

And yet, and yet…there is a serious misinformation problem. People blame the internet, but I blame the people. It’s not just about misinformation; it’s about unchallenged misinformation. If we accept that each person has their unalienable right to be ignorant, does that prevent us from challenging the politician on his lies? We accept that a politician will lie; what about a preacher? If a preacher is rabble-rousing and fear-mongering, do we have a duty to provide information? If an activist is trying to draw some attention to an environmental issue in the area, and we have proof that his theories are grounded in local history and scientific research, do we have a role to play there as well? Are we leaving this sort of thing up to the content providers, because we claim not to be adjudicators of such matters? In that case, what sort of information providers are we, if we see an information need we know we can fill but opt not to fill it for political reasons?

Can information provision ever be non-political? Can it be objective? Can we ever avoid the spectre of “improving” our patrons?

More Search Strings

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I was going to wait a few days before posting these again, but I’ve gotten some very interesting search strings today. I’m starting to wonder if I should make an art project out of these; a friend of mine long ago had a project of creating random poetry generators. Sometimes I think you could pretty easily collect these things and turn them into completely nonsensical poetry. Collaborative poetry inadvertently created by thousands. The detritus of internet ephemera, turned into art.

Huh.

The more I think about that idea, the more I like it. That wouldn’t even be that complicated bit of code, I don’t think. I mean, webalizer collects search strings. Couldn’t I just run a query and get it to spit out the last 20 search strings recorded in the form of a poem, and dump them into a webpage?

Anyway, art project ideas aside, the search strings:

do women like butt plugs
The internet is sort of like a magic eightball. And the answer is….ask again later.

beginner anal sex instruction
Noting a theme here? But I don’t think my blog is a particularly helpful resource on this subject. But I bet your local public library has a book you could borrow.

where is libby davies father peter davies
Internet as psychic medium. I’m particularly fond of these full sentence searches; I realize Boolean is for nerds librarians, but the full sentences sort of make it feel as though people think there’s a guy in their monitor who just reads the question and types up the answer. He’s in the kitchen!

medieval peasants foods eaten
I’m fond of this one for two reasons: one, it sounds like this user was making a stab at constructing a subject heading (medieval peasants—foods eaten); and two, I love food history. In my experience researching this question, it appears that most English medieval food was yellow, because their favourite spice was saffron. Just a bit of trivia for you.

imperceptible dictionary
If that’s not already the name of something, it really should be. The Imperceptible Dictionary. It’s like, the ubiquitous dictionary, but different. And less perceptible.

sorry everyone
Internet as confessional. It’s okay, man. Really. We forgive you. Shall we have a group hug?

vacuum dryer flowers
Quick, name three things in your basement right now!

death on the stairs
I feel that this search string is trying to prompt me with a mystery plot idea. The cover of this story would have a smoking gun, a single white pump with some blood on it, and a red rose strategically placed in a dark stairwell. Or this is just someone looking for a Georgette Heyer novel.

librarian quest spear script birds language
At first glance this appears to be merely a string of unrelated words, but no. If you think about it, it’s actually another plot idea. Possibly the plot of some story that’s already been told, but I don’t know anything about that. This is a story about a librarian who goes on a quest to find a spear. In order to uncover the spear, the librarian needs to decipher the language of birds through their curious chicken-scratch script, see. “Eureka!” the librarian shrieked, holding the bird manuscript aloft. “I’ve got it! The spear is in the kitchen with Libby Davies’ father!” Sounds like a fun story.

librarians extinct
“And next we see the now-extinct librarian. Note the pursed lips covered by a long, jointed digit; biologists surmise that this was the posture the librarian assumed when emitting her mating call.”