Medical librarian, the Krafty Librarian, ponders universal search and controlled vocabulary search in a thought-provoking post at her blog. What is “universal search?” The term means different things to different people. Some people equate universal search with federated search. Others think of Google’s combining of mixed media results as universal search. I think the Krafty Librarian is using the term to refer to the kind of searching most non-librarians use where we query using familiar keywords and/or phrases. Google employs this kind of searching as do common federated search engines. To avoid confusion, I’ll use the term “simple searching” instead.

What I particularly enjoyed about the Krafty Librarian article was the comparison between performing a controlled vocabulary search and speaking a foreign language. The disconnect between many librarians and their patrons, as I see it, is that librarians are experts in a number of foreign languages and they expect their users to become experts as well. The users, however, aren’t interested.

If I were to occasionally travel to a particular foreign country, how much effort would I want to exert to become fluent in their language? Not much. I might, however, hire an expert in the local language as a guide if I needed to have important conversations where misunderstandings were costly. Federated search users are foreigners. We aren’t experts in the search languages of the native sources. We enter simple keyword searches because that’s usually good enough for us. When that’s not good enough, librarians can serve as translators and expert communicators to get us better and more refined results.

I should note that good federated search applications can, in many cases, get better than expected results to users despite their use of simple search. How is that possible? It’s all about the connectors. Smart connectors can perform advanced (fielded) searches better than many novice searchers. Read What determines quality of search results? for further information.

The “federated search vs. native search” argument isn’t new, of course. Here are some articles I’ve written about the subject:

The great takeaway from the Krafty Librarian article is that it’s not an “either/or.” Expert librarians have an important role as guides. Simple search as used in federated search applications has its place too.

The final paragraph of the Krafty Librarian article gives great food for thought:

I tease my husband that he took the dead language Latin in high school, however what will MeSH and other controlled vocabularies be years from now? Only learned expert searchers seem to be the ones still fluent in MeSH speak, the average person is not. Latin didn’t really die, it just evolved into other languages. Our language for searching is evolving too.

If you enjoyed this post, make sure you subscribe to the RSS feed!


This entry was posted on Monday, January 26th, 2009 at 2:21 pm and is filed under viewpoints. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or TrackBack URI from your own site.

Leave a reply

Name (*)
Mail (*)