Monday, April 18, 2011

Is it cheating to have an MLIS degree?

The library staff has been going through some intensive training preparing for implementation of our new integrated library system, WMS (Web-scale Management Service.) We get together in the Technical Services office and gather around either Joe's or Lindsey’s computer to log in to a WebEx session and dial in using their office phones.

During one of these WebEx training sessions on the features of the new public catalog, WorldCat Local, we were given some exercises to perform. Terri and I gathered at Lindsey’s desk and Natalie and Nicky crowded in at Joe’s work station. As we worked through the exercises and checked our results against the answer key, we also asked the other group how they arrived at the results they got. If we didn’t come up with the expected answer, we tried again.

After over hearing how our group figured out how to get right answer to appear on the screen, Natalie (one of our brightest student assistants, not pictured) turned to us and accused us of cheating! We all laughed. "Of course!" I said, "This is the MLS table!"

I actually hadn’t realized it until that moment, but it was true. All three of us have masters degrees in library and information science. We joked, but the division was evident in how we approached the exercises and in our excited chatter as we conducted the searches.

One of my favorite library writers and speakers, Roy Tennant once said, "Librarians like to search. Library patrons like to find." It is so true! We do get a charge out of the hunt. Once we have found the answers, we move on to the next question. But that just makes us metadata nerds, not helpful.

But librarians strive to be helpful. Our understanding of metadata and search engines is only meaningful if we can use it to serve our patrons. We study Information Retrieval (IR) to relieve our students and faculty of that burden. The key measures of success in IR are precision, relevance, and recall. Without getting too nerdy, this means that an ideal database search query will deliver all of the articles that are relevant and none that are not.

For example, let's say someone is searching for information on how earthquakes have historically affected the fishing industry in Japan. And let's say that we happen to know that there are exactly 100 articles on that subject in a certain geological database. If our researcher enters a search query that recalls all 100 of those articles that would be good. Or would it? If the results also included 2,000 irrelevant articles on fishing, Japan, or earthquakes, the search would be considered just as unsuccessful as one that recalled only 5 of the 100. What we are going for is precision. We know our patrons want precisely what they want -- nothing more and nothing less.

So, how does that happen? It's a two-way street.

The system has to be designed so that articles can be found with the typical user in mind. Librarians have a hand in database design because we know how the typical user (our patrons) searches for information.

The user has to understand how to construct a search using terms (keywords, etc.) that the system can use to return articles that are truly relevant to their information need. Librarians have a hand in instructing the user because we understand how systems are designed.

Our new system has a pretty smart search engine and an intuitive user interface. But if we metadata nerds uncover any quirks, we can tweak the display or, if that's not possible, we can provide instruction (i.e., on-screen helps and tutorials) to guide our users to recall more relevant items... and we can suggest system enhancements for future upgrades to improve our user's experience.

Those of us who like to search already love it, but we believe people who just like to find will love it, too.

Having a professional degree is not cheating but it is an advantage – for the librarians and for the library patrons we serve.

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