Google's Pagerank and Beyond: The Science of Search Engine Rankings

By Amy N. Langville; Carl D. Meyer | Go to book overview

Chapter One
Introduction to Web Search Engines

1.1 A SHORT HISTORY OF INFORMATION RETRIEVAL

Today we have museums for everything—the museum of baseball, of baseball players, of crazed fans of baseball players, museums for world wars, national battles, legal fights, and family feuds. While there’s no shortage of museums, we have yet to find a museum dedicated to this book’s field, a museum of information retrieval and its history. Of course, there are related museums, such as the Library Museum in Boras, Sweden, but none concentrating on information retrieval. Information retrieval1 is the process of searching within a document collection for a particular information need (called a query). Although dominated by recent events following the invention of the computer, information retrieval actually has a long and glorious tradition. To honor that tradition, we propose the creation of a museum dedicated to its history. Like all museums, our museum of information retrieval contains some very interesting artifacts. Join us for a brief tour.

The earliest document collections were recorded on the painted walls of caves. A cave dweller interested in searching a collection of cave paintings to answer a particular information query had to travel by foot, and stand, staring in front of each painting. Unfortunately, it’s hard to collect an artifact without being gruesome, so let’s fast forward a bit.

Before the invention of paper, ancient Romans and Greeks recorded information on papyrus rolls. Some papyrus artifacts from ancient Rome had tags attached to the rolls. These tags were an ancient form of today’s Post-it Note, and make an excellent addition to our museum. A tag contained a short summary of the rolled document, and was attached in order to save readers from unnecessarily unraveling a long irrelevant document. These abstracts also appeared in oral form. At the start of Greek plays in the fifth century B.C., the chorus recited an abstract of the ensuing action. While no actual classification scheme has survived from the artifacts of Greek and Roman libraries, we do know that another elementary information retrieval tool, the table of contents, first appeared in Greek scrolls from the second century B.C. Books were not invented until centuries later, when necessity required an alternative writing material. As the story goes, the Library of Pergamum (in what is now Turkey) threatened to overtake the celebrated Library of Alexandria as the best library in the world, claiming the largest collection of papyrus rolls. As a result, the Egyptians ceased the supply of papyrus to Pergamum, so the Pergamenians invented an alternative writing material, parchment, which is made from thin layers of animal skin. (In fact, the root of the word parchment comes from the word Pergamum.) Unlike papyrus,

1The boldface terms that appear throughout the book are also listed and defined in the Glossary, which begins on page 201.

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