Search Mechanics and Search Engineers

A couple of days ago I came across the phrase search mechanic in a post on US IT Spending:

The budget request calls for launching a new tracking tool with daily updates that would provide the public with the ability to see aggregate spending by agency and also by geographic area as an effort to increase transparency. Obama also wants a new search mechanic [my emphasis] to allow the public to “mash” data by location, agency and timeframe.

By this, I take it to mean search mechanic in the sense of game mechanics, that is, something like the way the rules/architecture of the game (or ‘code‘ in the sense Lessig uses it) determine the game play and the user’s interaction with the game. (If you’re interested in how games and the business of games works, why not sign up to my Digital Worlds course?;-)

So for example, one different search mechanic might be a different user experience, such as displaying results on a map or timeline rather than as a list, or another might be a different way of determining (or ranking) and presenting the results based on user profiling; topically, using social search for example (e.g. The Anatomy of a Large-Scale Social Search Engine, and Search is getting more social).

Anyway, for a long time I’ve been looking for a phrase to describe what I think is likely to be a core skill for librarians, namely, the ability to generate effective search queries over a range of systems, from popular search engines, to traditional subscription databases (in the sense of things like Lexis Nexis or EBSCO), to ‘proper’ databases and even Linked Data stores (how’s your SQL and SPARQL?)

So I wonder – is there a role for search mechanics (like car mechanics) and search engineers? The search mechanics might be there to help you get your search query working on the one hand, or fix the ranking algorithm in your search engine on the other, whereas the search engineer might be more interested in working at a different level, figuring out effective search strategies, or how to use search in a particular situation?

Author: Tony Hirst

I'm a Senior Lecturer at The Open University, with an interest in #opendata policy and practice, as well as general web tinkering...

3 thoughts on “Search Mechanics and Search Engineers”

  1. Entirely agree that librarians need to be starting to think about the skills they will need in the developing datastore search environment. How much is it possible to distinguish between the data store content and the skills needed to extract and manipulate it – and whether librarians need both those skills?

    But I’d suggest there’s a difference between navigation e.g. deciding where you are going – ‘deciding on an effective search strategy’ and the mechanics/engineering aspect – tinkering around under the bonnet – to build search systems to search across different areas.

    Librarians would say that they already have a key role in “deciding on effective search strategies” and they need to extend that to know about data sources and how they can be exploited – but a lot of librarians seem to draw a line that says – ‘beyond this point is for techies only’ – enthusiasts, library technologists, library systems and technology experts.

    Maybe the librarian role is ‘Search Consultant’ – designing search strategies. Search engineers I’d always instinctively view as being at a ‘higher’ level – e.g. designing the search system, while ‘search mechanics’ deal with the day to day optimisation?

    1. @Richard You say: “Librarians would say that they already have a key role in “deciding on effective search strategies””. Yes, I think they would say that. And I think that may not be true, because I don’t know that they keep up with what’s increasingly possible in search…? ;-)

      As to librarians drawing the line – quite right too. No-one ever got anywhere doing anything new. Typing? Pah. What’s wrong with a pencil…?

      One argument I can easily imagine is the librarianship equivalent of academics drawing the ‘education vs training’ distinction (training is not the sort of thing any respectable HE academic should engage in…); which is to say: yes, yes, of course, yes, well, I can give you a good search strategy for that but unless you want to use the card catalogue, I can’t actually help you do any practical searching…

      As with datastores – that’s an interesting question. So here’s a challenge for some librarians, bearing in mid that UK GOv appears to be keep fo people to start using as a first point of call for gov data, and they also seem keen on pushing the Linked Data datastores: imagining that I’m a social science research student, i) how do I find out what’s in the Linked Data education data store (i.e. what “column headings” does it contain?); and b) can I use that data store directly to find out what percentage of pupils qualify for free school meals in schools whose catchment areas cover a particular postcode? If I can’t do it directly, what else do I need to know and where do I get that information?

      If this is non-trivial, then a follow up question would be: do HEI libraries need to be able to support this sort of request, and if so to what level of detail/help? Do research librarians need to engage in the community to help the development team identify the sorts of support materials and helper tools that will make a more widely useable resource (it’s still early days and I get the feeling they are keen for input). Or is this out of scope for libraries, in which case: another nail in your coffin?

  2. Tony. Librarians should be helping students etc find and use resources, that’s a key part of what they should be doing. That should include data in datastores, OER repositories, research data repositories or any future data storage space – it’s the content not the storage format that should be important. And I think they should be helping academics who are creating courses to find relevant material in these spaces too. So I very much agree with your view that librarians should get involved.

    Actually, librarians always have these debates about what they should do when new formats of material come along. They acquired the skills to manage content on CD-ROM, then online databases, then federated access – but not without a lot of debate about ‘should librarians be doing this?’ There’s always this degree of insecurity about the role and value of librarians.

    Some librarians are already engaged with this role and in helping to shape Linked Data and more will get involved as there is more debate about it. There’s an adoption curve for librarians getting on board with new things – RFID comes to mind – started slowly and then a deluge of adoption.

    And, I agree with librarians needing to step over the line and work in the areas you’ve identified and at a technical level – the interest in Mashed Libraries points to more and more being interested – but libraries (as an organisation rather than librarians) have a habit of wanting to say ‘OK this part is an activity that Learning and Teaching librarians should do … but this aspect is more technical so is an activity that Library Systems people do’

    So maybe it is a question of how much knowledge of search technologies, mash-ups, pipes, etc librarians need to have to be able to understand the new environment to exploit the content?

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