Flying across the U.S. Midwestern states, particularly
in late summer and early autumn, I’m always
struck by the green circles of irrigated land scattered
among brown rectangles of farm fields. These are
not as obvious when you’re on the ground, driving
across, say, Kansas. Looking out a car window rather
than an airplane window you see solid rows of wheat,
corn, or soybeans. Late in the growing year, many
have turned brown and that’s all you see.
The fields are akin to traditional library collections—with
individual plants representing the books, journals,
and other documents in the collection. Browsing the
physical stacks is like walking down a row of corn,
picking off the ear you think will be the most scrumptious.
Today’s library users are more likely to use
their personal computers to access information than
to walk down a library aisle. They’re at 30,000
feet, looking down at the green circle, ready to
swoop down and pluck the juiciest morsel they see.
They’re looking for a scrumptious piece of
data and they don’t care which field it comes
from. Looking down on the fields, they can see where
the irrigated portions are located.
Scholars are often exasperated by these behaviors
of information end users. They want books read cover
to cover. They prefer methodological rigor. They
want publications to be viewed as complete entities,
not as bits and pieces pulled out to support whatever
paper a student is writing or point of view a researcher
is espousing. They’re like traditional farmers,
whose patterns of plowing, planting, and harvesting
are careful, controlled, and systematic.
Today’s end users are looking at the green
circles of irrigated land. They don’t care
about how the farmer plants or harvests his crops.
They just want to eat. They are not methodical. They
do not read books from cover to cover, unless it’s
fiction with a strong plot that requires starting
at the first page and ending on the last. They multitask.
They instant message while searching the Internet,
listening to music, and blogging. I believe, however,
that this is the natural outgrowth of the free-text
searching on full-text documents that developed in
the early to mid-1980s. It’s the next level
We are moving from an information environment dominated
by publication entities to one of snippets and pieces.
The irrigated circles become more important than
the field. The methodology changes from one that
starts at the upper left of a page (or a cornfield)
and continues line by line, row by row, to the lower
right, to one that celebrates peripheral vision,
the gathering of bits and pieces to make a whole,
and data overlays.
Call it the snippet generation. But are today’s
snippets any different from yesterday’s KWIC
display? Hasn’t 30 years of online search,
retrieval, and dissemination trained all of us to
think of information as piecemeal? Rather than bemoan
the snippet approach, we’re better off recognizing
the benefits of serendipitous research, realizing
that it’s a natural evolution of the online
search environment, and relishing new approaches
to information discovery.