High fidelity search?

Author: Sol

I just found this fantastic article, The High Fidelity Challenge, at ACRL’s blog, ACRLog. For the longest time I’ve had the concern that students pick Google and discovery services over federated search because of the speed factor, even in cases where federated search brings more targeted, more credible, and more relevant results. But, my complaining falls mostly on deaf ears. Speed is addicting.

The ACRL article makes these sobering claims:

Students no longer care about using high quality information.

Students are all too willing to satisfice for whatever content they can find along the path of least resistance.

Students are too dependent on search tools that facilitate their use of low quality sources.

I’m hooked. Here’s another quote from the article:

These are common concerns we academic librarians have about our undergraduates. We lament that they’ve abandoned high quality library-supported resources for those that are easy to find and use but which offer lower quality content. As we’ve been told, convenience trumps quality, and our students often prove it’s true.

I’m liking this article a whole lot. The author, Steven Bell (second place winner in the first Federated Search Blog contest), draws a fascinating analogy between music and search, specifically the quality of music vs. the quality of search:

I discovered a similar situation [convenience trumping quality] unfolding in an unexpected place, the hi-fidelity music industry. What’s happened is that the new generation is content to listen to music on mp3 players, but mp3s have the worst sound quality of any audio medium (e.g., CDs,DVDs,vinyl). Why is a new generation choosing to listen to poor quality music instead of opting for readily available alternate formats that offer superior quality?


Bell explains that people who care about quality are willing to pay more or give up some convenience. They choose “high fidelity.” Bell cites a New York Times article about the great decline in listening to high fidelity music:

From 2000 to 2009, Americans reduced their overall spending on home stereo components by more than a third, to roughly $960 million, according to the Consumer Electronics Association, a trade group. Spending on portable digital devices during that same period increased more than fiftyfold, to $5.4 billion. “People used to sit and listen to music,” Mr. Fremer said, but the increased portability has altered the way people experience recorded music. “It was an activity. It is no longer consumed as an event that you pay attention to.” Instead, music is often carried from place to place, played in the background while the consumer does something else — exercising, commuting or cooking dinner.

This is a theme in our modern life. Families used to enjoy home cooked meals but we’ve given up much of that quality of food and experience for fast food, pre-cooked food, and processed food - convenience over quality = low fidelity eating. We’ve become addicted to movies that stimulate us over ones that have well developed characters and rich plots. And, we’ve done that with search. Take what’s quick, easy, and convenient. Don’t invest time to learn to perform effective research. Don’t (gasp) wait thirty seconds for search results. Skip the stove and use the microwave.

Bell asks the important question all librarians should be asking themselves, their staffs, and their students:

Is there a parallel phenomena in our undergraduates? Have they become so accustomed to retrieving an avalanche of information for just about any search they perform that they’ve lost the ability of past generations to distinguish between high and low fidelity

Well, I could quote Mr. Bell’s entire article but you’d be better served by reading it yourself.

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This entry was posted on Wednesday, June 9th, 2010 at 9:23 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.

One Response to "High fidelity search?"

  1. 1 Gregor Erbach
    June 10th, 2010 at 8:25 am  

    I think the best solution would be to let users search the web and “high-fidelity” sources at the same time, with a single query. Using only the HiFi sources, users would never discover Mr Bell’s article, which does not meet the academic standards, but can nevertheless inspire some thoughts. And it’s important to fill the 30 second gap while waiting for the HiFi results; otherwise - being social animals - we will use that time to check out what our friends are up to on Facebook. Anyway, the important thing to teach to students is to evaluate the information they find on its own merits. Being selected by a librarian, filtered through a peer review process and published in a journal with a high impact factor are not automatic guarantees of quality, only helpful indicators.

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