Magazine article American Libraries

Internet Librarian: What's Next? Search Me

Magazine article American Libraries

Internet Librarian: What's Next? Search Me

Article excerpt

Ah, Dialog. Come back with me now and spend a moment basking in the halcyon glow of the days when the company exercised hegemony in the world of searching. (I myself never even learned BRS and always had to remind myself of the Lexis/Nexis commands, mentally translating them to "(2W)" and "/DE" anyway.)

In the introductory class at our library school, students build an inverted file by hand, on little bits of index cards, much as Dialog does. They then discuss how much power and control that kind of file gets you in searching. As the search world continues to evolve, the stability and precision that Dialog and other professional search tools stood for have become increasingly nostalgic notions.

Way, way back, in the early 1960s, individual database producers had to develop and provide their own search systems and interfaces. Dialog and its ilk provided common search command structures and made the searching world a good deal easier to work in, assuming you knew the commands.

Then along came the Internet. Early net searching tools (Archie, Veronica) were awfully crude, special-purpose beasts. Once the Web hit, though, and the earliest search engines arose, the little onscreen box became the standard search interface--and so it remains.

That little box is so obvious, so easy to use, that it doesn't even require instructions (look hard at the Google front page). It is now pervasive--many library catalogs and bibliographic databases feature the little box, with advanced search features either hidden or demoted, emphasizing ease of use over power and sophistication.

Which makes perfect sense: For the vast majority of people, ease of use is paramount, and the relative few who want powerful advanced techniques will bore into the help pages to find them anyway. Why burden the casual, disinterested user with bells and whistles they won't or can't use?

Boxing match

From our professional perspective, the little box has not only diminished the potential sophistication of search, it's also returned us to a more diverse search environment. Now all the major vendors (ProQuest, Wilson, EBSCO, OCLC, and so on) have their own idiosyncratic interfaces and features, and who can keep them all straight? Using these on the fly, with a reference client, is a real challenge.

Not to mention that normal people don't get the differences between all these systems. …

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