Ye Olde Library Yonder

​​When I first attended university, it was during the days of chunky cube-like computer monitors, and I saved my work onto a floppy disc. Internet access inside halls of residence was unheard of. I accessed learning materials primarily through physical books and VHS tapes. I travelled to campus by horse and buggy. (OK, the previous sentence is not true, but it is true that I was previously a student in a different era.

So here I am, a middle-aged career-changer, on the cusp of having to write academic assignments, and I’m filled with trepidation… However, the recent Data Information Technologies and Applications sessions have served as much-needed guidance on how to find suitable information in this technology-saturated 21st century world.

Information Retrieval (IR) systems handle semi-structured data, which is likely to be more academically relevant, reliable, and useful than simply “Googling” is. An IR system’s search component does the retrieving work, though there are different ways for the searching to be carried out. Many IR systems will present algorithmically-generated results based on what they perceive to be most relevant. Vector and probabilistic systems will provide their interpretation of the most suitable matches for your search criteria; you are likely receive a variety of results, perhaps only some of which (if any) will be useful. The Boolean IR model will only show you precisely what you have asked for (allowing “AND”, “OR”, or “NOT” in your search, in order to generate exact results). Alternatively, some IR models, such as Google, will present results that are generated according to how many other web pages link to a particular page.

How do you get to the point of seeing these results though?

A system’s interface is important. I like to start with a simple, straightforward search box. If I am unable to find what I want in a timely manner, I am happy to proceed with a more complex interface that has advanced search options (I actually rather enjoy the structured, well-organised approach of this).

Is it only books, web pages, and articles that I might want to search for in writing assignments? Probably not. Other forms of data such as music, images, and art, are increasingly accessible. No longer simply book repositories, libraries are implementing “discovery tools” for patrons (IR systems that give one-step access to an array of resources of various types). In volume 19 (published on 08th August 2012) of the College & Undergraduate Libraries journal, the Academic Libraries and Discovery Tools: A Survey of the Literature article by Beth Thomsett-Scott and Patricia E. Reese stated: “Most librarians would agree that, out of all library resources, users have the most difficult time using the catalog. Catalogs are not searchable by Google, and, therefore, they leave a huge resource of information unavailable to users. … Combining a “Google-like” search box with the wealth of a library’s information resources may help us recover users who left our “walls” for the ease of Web searching. Hence, discovery tools!”

This article is eight years old though; there has been progression since then. In Journal of Web Librarianship, on 17th February 2019, Discovery Tools in the Classroom: A Usability Study and Implications for Information Literacy Instruction by Joel Tonyan and Christi Piper was published. They investigated the intuitiveness of the commonly-used Summon discovery tool, via a study of students’ behaviours at the University of Colorado Colorado Springs. They found: “Results indicate that students are comfortable with the interface and have few problems with the tool. Instead, participants struggled with critical thinking processes associated with research.” Now being aware of this, I should perhaps transfer my anxiety away from the actual technology and information retrieval systems used when writing an academic paper, to focusing on the development of my critical thinking. 

As the olde me might say, thy shalt verily become learned.

(Image courtesy of Pixabay)

3 thoughts on “Ye Olde Library Yonder

  1. I find your reflection on how to relearn studying in a very much changed environment very interesting. You could almost write a personal account of your experience from ‘back in the days’ and now. That would surley make for some interesting ‘information! 😉
    And concerning the issue of critical thinking, there is a wealth of guidelines in Moodle: -> City ->Student Academic Skills and Wellbeing ->Academic Skills -> Study guides (on the left). There you’ll find guide lines for critical thinking


  2. I really like how you look at information retrieval systems and which directions they are developing in as web-style search methods become more prevalent in our everyday lives. Your point towards the end about developing critical thinking in regards to research and shifting your anxiety away from technology and information retrieval systems was interesting. It made me think about whether the integration of the web-style search box with the more complex interface is a contributing factor, because the search box is present in our everyday lives where critical thinking about research and what we find is perhaps less prevalent.


  3. This is a good overview of IR systems and how they work! I too follow the same usual search patterns (search box and advanced search) and it’s interesting to see how libraries are evolving their own systems to make them easier to use.


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