Ask people in what direction search is headed and you’re likely to get a different answer from each person you ask. Search is going toward semantic, toward predicting what you want to know before you finish your query, toward facilitating shopping at the expense of serious research, toward being more open, toward being more fee-based, toward being eclectic, toward being specialized, toward giving answers rather than a list of links, toward discovery, toward information nirvana, toward ultimate findability—or none of the above.
As with most predictions, some of the imaginings of where search is headed will be wrong. Search lost its allure as an exotic, disruptive technology when it became accepted as normal behavior. People find information via search engines, even if they don’t recognize what’s involved when they invoke a search engine. Online searchers are hardly a protected species—they are everywhere. Where does that leave the information professional?
Information professionals are in the sometimes awkward position of knowing more about search than users of their services but being perceived as not knowing enough. When people think everything can be found via Google, how do information professionals convince them to learn something different? In academia, librarians struggle to convince students that databases supplied by EBSCO Information Services, ProQuest, Elsevier B.V., and others have value and are worth learning how to search. Employees within companies, nonprofits, and government entities no longer turn first to their libraries; they search Google.
Determining search directions isn’t as easy as knowing to turn left at the corner. It’s not even as simple as describing Boolean operators, nested strategies, limiting facets, order of operation, or truncation variables. While these may excite seasoned searchers, they’re meaningless to the ordinary user of web search engines. The long-sought answer is to build the intelligence into the back end of search so users don’t have to know all the bells and whistles. But information professionals do have to know how it all works—that’s what sets them apart.
What we need to think about are the next exotic, disruptive technologies. Granted, some that we get excited about turn out to be just flashes in the pan rather than long-lasting lights for the future. Search is going in many directions at once. It’s not necessarily about answering questions or finding the proverbial needle in the haystack. It’s about teasing out the proper strands of hay to create a needle. It’s about alternatives both to measuring value and identifying resources. It’s about outcomes rather than mechanics. It’s about creativity melded with technology. It’s about new strategies and unconventional thought processes. It’s multidimensional and multidirectional.
Whatever direction search is headed, information professionals need to be there first, waving directional signs and guiding people to the best search and discovery experience possible. Information professionals, to stay relevant, must evaluate new technologies, take the best parts of them, and mold them to meet our informational and knowledge needs.