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Is Search the Right Way?

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Presentation at 'After the Digital Revolution' 26 January 2018

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Is Search the Right Way?

  1. 1. • ‘Digital Transformations’ ‘Digital Revolution’: ideas of rapid disruptive change. Is that always the case? Wasn’t the development of the internet and then the web a much slower and gradual process? • Google taken as a paradigm of such dramatic change, but there were precursors (both analogue and digital). • Anxieties around the ‘Google-isation of everything’ are now becoming commonplace. But there is little discussion about how the Google search (natural language, unstructured) has become the chief means by which we expect to retrieve information. • A Google search is simple for users, but its apparent precision is already illusory in different ways with digitised material. • Will the textual search by adequate for dealing with very large quantities of complex digital objects in a very wide range of formats?
  2. 2. • The hierarchical form of the web recalls the structure of corporate archives. • Correspondingly, earliest portals took the form of guides (Yahoo began as a subject guide to good sites on the web) • Alta Vista pioneered a simple natural language search with a clean screen. It declined in popularity when it became combined with the web portal information in Yahoo. • Google succeeded not simply because of its speed and reliability but also because it made it easier for us to understand the web; it met our expectations and preferences. • These preferences were shaped by our earlier experiences of information retrieval: the index; the directory; the library catalogue. However, these rely on highly structured data and a consistent search strategy. These are not present in a Google search.
  3. 3. • Alphabetisation of knowledge goes back at least as far as the creation of the first biblical concordances in the thirteenth century, but is dependent on preliminary structuring of the relevant information (chapter numbers and verses had to be inventedfor bibles before concordances were compiled) • The index offers highly regularised and consistent headings which group subject information on a systematic basis. • Library card catalogues are again highly structured in their treatment of names and subject information. This is retained (generally) when these catalogues are automated. • Library catalogues were an important factor in encouraging use to expect simple keyword searching to be effective. But a lot of the success of keyword searching is due to underlying subject cataloguing. • By contrast, Google searches are only partly based on indexing of content within web pages. Draws on a mish-mash of underpinning data. • Algorithms famously secret, but a lot can be learnt from press information and reverse engineering eg release of Google Speed due in July.
  4. 4. • Even more dangerous is the way a Google type search is used for other digital resources where it is not appropriate eg newspaper collections with poor OCR. • Example of kind of things a Google-type search misses out or is bad at handling: • Implied or incomplete information eg eighteenth century references to Samuel Johnson as ‘Pensioner J----n’ or ‘the lexicographer’ or simply ‘Dr J----son’. • Complex or dispersed subject information • Applying filters eg date coverage • In archives there are particular problems: • Bias towards classes with item level description • Difficulty of representing or understanding hierarchical relationships • As we deal with larger quantities of information, does a textual strategy do the job? Nineteenth century archivists were anxious about a ‘sea of print’ in publishing records. We might be equally concerned about an ocean of data as OCR for handwritten records becomes more practicable and as we are confronted with petabytes of digital archives. • George W Bush Presidential archive: over 200 million e-mails. Wikileaks, Panama Papers contain terabytes of data. We can’t just type in ‘Iraq’ to find the information we need.
  5. 5. Tim Sherratt, Open with Exceptions
  6. 6. A lot of further questions here: • The role of AI (automated methods already extensively used in preparing projects like the Old Bailey) • The role of other senses? Do we engage our full range of senses enough? • Touch: could we make data more tactile? Might that help? • Sound: we are already speaking to Alexa (courtesy of Brewster Kahle), Google and Siri. Could our spoken engagement be wider? Could we interpret the archive better if we heard it? • Smell? • We conceive of data in a limited way – could we expand our concept of the nature of data • Then, how to reconceive our means of interrogating this re-imagined data?

Presentation at 'After the Digital Revolution' 26 January 2018

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