Thursday, 29 November 2012

Keyword Mythology

Philip Harvey
In recent years literary criticism talks about everything “outside the text” or says that, in fact, there is nothing “outside the text”. This is a means to reading that has met with a mixed press. But I would say we have to start seriously thinking again in our study and in our library work about everything that is “outside the internet”.  Because, for too many years now we have permitted people to live under the delusion that there is nothing “outside the internet”.

I cannot count the number of times I have found what I am searching for online by resorting to a printed book. Not that I’m counting.

And I have lost count, not that I started, of the number of learned articles in recent years published online and in print on the weaknesses and pitfalls of keyword searching.

What started out as a reference librarian’s dream, one-stop online information from every imaginable source, has turned into a quagmire of endless return pages, unmediated and undifferentiated links, too much information and often none of it immediately helpful.

Over ten years ago a common view took hold that the only search strategy you needed for a database was the keyword search. This view, some would still say this opinion, was augmented by the internet search engines of the time, where keyword was your one option for getting at the zillions of word hits online. Even the concept of search limiting, a byword of library catalogues, was news to many in the world of IT. Keyword was not so much an option as gospel, fitted onto every imaginable computer object as the failsafe way to the data.

Simultaneously a second myth about the internet emerged: it’s all out there and this is the End of the Book. Even though educated and informed web travellers knew this was not the case, and I include librarians in that number by definition, nevertheless we saw the easy takeover of the keyword as search of choice (there was never a choice) and the relegation of the book to some secondary and curious extra when it came to searching. Either/Or won the day over Both/And. But only for now.

My colleague in the Library Susan Southall is completing her thesis on the Rich in the Gospel of Luke. This means rigorously verifying all citations in the text for the footnotes. One quote was proving a particular challenge to re-locate, the first use of the expression “The very wage they receive is the pledge of their slavery.” This quote concerns the idea in the Roman Empire that a free person is no better than a slave when he receives a wage. It is Cicero, in his De Officiis, but where in De Officiis? A Google search delivered plenty of hits, in fact too many hits and not one of them able to take Susan to the quote itself or the precise Book and Paragraph and Line in the Cicero. It may be down there on page 17 of the thousands of hits, but then it mayn’t. Her solution was to check the classical dictionaries and books of quotations lining the Reference Section of the Carmelite Library. She found the reference first time: De Officiis Book 1, Para. 159. Where was that information? The Oxford Classical Dictionary, 3rd edition. Thus armed, Susan returned to the screen to find a classical database that had the full text of the work. Thanks to Google (thankyou Google) Susan found the Perseus Digital Library at Tufts University. This is recommended. There she found lots of Cicero, and after careful self-tuition in how to search for author, title, and word, confirmed via Perseus the exact place where this wage slavery quote is employed in Cicero.

By mistake she also discovered that by putting an ess on ‘wage’ in Google she found a link to the phrase “Wages of Sin” in Cicero. Amazing, but that’s another story.

The idea that print books are one of the best tools for searching the internet is not news to a real reference librarian, or scholar. That standard reference tools continue to deliver ready information in-depth should not be a surprise, it’s why they were devised in the first place. But why doesn’t everybody appreciate this basic reality? The issue and the challenge is in educating our users in how to manage what looks like, to them, a stack of dated volumes that couldn’t possibly contain a jottle of what they’re on about. Some of our users only believe the answer exists if there is an app for it.  

All of this huge generation of research activity is premised on the governing power in our lives of the Keyword. In order to get what you want and to go where you want to go, you have to ‘make friends’ with the keyword search. Manoeuvre around it if you can, if that is possible, but the Keyword is the decisive mover in our study and reading. While it is the locus of our literary lives, the keyword to all mythologies, then we have to get creative with its centrifugal reality. Our relationship with the keyword search is not going away anytime soon.  

No comments:

Post a Comment