A few things brewing …

April 25, 2007

Went to a library event called “Digital Odyssey” last week to hear a number of people speak. I was quite interested in just hearing what the relatively new Chief from MacMaster had to say, and that was quite interesting. (on a completely different topic … to write this I just switched over to my Powerbook from a PC … the keyboard on this thing is beautiful after the PC … it just feels so perfect!) Anyway, I went in thinking about a recent webby application I’d become interested in, and a number of topics merged. There was one talk on putting web 2.0 features into a library catalogue and something about it was really rubbing me the wrong way … it was good work, but there was just something wrong. It struck me that this project, by implementing rating systems, comments, and such was focusing too much on the discreet end points of searching. i.e. – they were collecting searches, and they were collecting the items (and reactions to them) at the other end. This is all fine and good, but I’ve been focusing lately a lot on the idea that research is not just entering a search and receiving results. It’s also more than just matching like people with like results and preferences. Research, in fact, is a process, and it’s a complex and often social process. The bit that’s missing in this focus on search beginnings and endings, is the “trail” that takes up the middle, and the trail is extremely important to the person seeking information.
I’ve thought about this quite a bit and discussed it with scholars. The most obvious manifestation of the trail is following citations. Once a person reaches a certain point in their education, they realize that the endnotes and bibliography of any article can be almost as important as the content. These elements of a paper show you who is an influence on the author, and how the author has constructed his or her argument. Many times I have followed citations and created a “trail”, and I know that my research is nearly complete when I begin to see the same sources being mentioned repeatedly … at that point I begin to feel like I have a grip on the community of people working on this topic and that I have “covered the ground”. The trail can also certainly be a social circle of actual people, and I suspect that people utilize these trails without even realizing that they are utilizing a technique (you know that the guy down the street has had some great work done on his house, so you ask him about the process of getting renovations done, he tells you to contact so and so, etc).

Anyway … trails. As I mentioned some posts ago, this fellow Vannevar Bush undertsood the importance of trails way back in 1945 when he speculated about information technology. I think that we have gone through a period in digital information use that has lost the utility of the trail to a certain degree, as we each do discreet searches, find some stuff, and then exit Google or whatever, our search history more or less lost forever. The current library catalogue most definitely has no memory, and does nothing to tie together all of the bazillion people who use it … and there’s a lot of information being lost there. Remembering their searches, their results, and their ratings would be something, but to remember their “trails”, and the networks that they create as they move through information would really be something.

There is actually at least one product attempting to put the idea of “trails” into use. the folks at trailfire get the concept and are trying to create a tool to allow one to keep track of trails. They are in the early stages, but it’s quite interesting. They offer a tool that allow you to mark and annotate websites as you search for information and to save these collections as “trails”, and to share them with others (just as Vannevar Bush envisioned). It almost works, and the ability to save collections of websites in clusters with annotations is useful in itself. The “trail” thing isn’t quite there, though, as most of the examples seem to be just collections of un-connected sites … the potential is there, perhaps as they develop this thing it will develop some true power.


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