Search box on library websiteA couple of tweets today flagged up Andrew Asher’s paper on Search Magic on his ‘An Anthropology of Algorithms’ blog (a great title for a blog).  As he explains in the paper it is based on research he has been conducting into how students find and use information as part of the ERIAL project.

Student search behaviour is something that is of great interest to me as I work at a University that delivers courses at a distance so library search is one of the main ways that students interact with our library.  We’ve grappled with the challenge of how we present library search for a while and I’ve blogged about it before a couple of times, most recently here.

So it is really good to see Andrew’s thoughts and research into library search.  It’s interesting to read about the rise of the secretive ‘algorithmic culture’ that he describes as it really starts to explain the trust that users invest in search engines like Google and the implications that this has for library search systems.  We’ve all recognised the impact that Google has on student expectations and Andrew clearly identifies the simplicity and single search box and simple keyword as being something that libraries have been trying to mimic.  Given that library resources have rather less internal coherence (e.g. the typical federated search systems) than Google’s search index then maybe it’s not surprising that the record is mixed.

The figures Andrew reports clearly show students using library search systems as they would Google which leads to problems with too little or too many search results appearing.  That is a problem that is all too familar to users of the new generation Discovery systems such as Ebsco Discovery and Summon.  As Andrew points out these systems also use relevance ranking algorithms that they can be quite proprietary about.

I suppose I’m not surprised that students largely aren’t using what librarians would consider to be the most appropriate search tool for their particular enquiry.  They use what they have had success with in the past.  At undergraduate level at least I’m not surprised that students don’t have the knowledge of which is the most appropriate database to use.  That’s a skill that librarians have had to master and although we all do a lot to try to get this type of domain search information across it clearly doesn’t get through.  But perhaps the concentration of effort on ‘one-stop’ type discovery searches is obscuring that message?

Andrew also covers students skills in evaluating (0r not evaluating) the quality of results and the self-perpetuating loop of trusting results listed on the first page.  Certainly the examples of students deciding that because their search didn’t turn up any results ‘then the information must not exist and they should give upon the topic’ are familar.

A really fascinating and useful paper and piece of research into student search behaviour and something I look forward to hearing more about.