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ONLINE SEARCHER: Information Discovery, Technology, Strategies


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Whither Library Discovery?
July/August 2022 Issue


If the goal of library search and discovery is not merely providing access but playing an important pedagogical function that furthers people’s agency through promoting critical information literacy, we must ask how library discovery can actively prompt and facilitate critical thinking at the point of search. Cees Hamelink, a Dutch scholar in communications science, argued that for news media to play the role of liberator rather than oppressor and help people become information literate, it needs to present information in a holistic perspective in which a particular piece of information can be located. The news media should not suppress such a perspective by presenting it as a fragment. The ultimate goal of the media is to enable people to gain insight into the interdependence between happenings into the involvement of one’s own context and then into the possibility of acting upon the challenge thus posed.

Hamelink’s point is relevant in envisioning a search and discovery interface that prompts library users’ curiosity about how information has been selected and listed in search results, instead of leading them to blindly accept it as given. It is not difficult to see that such an interface should present and display information as part of a broader context, showing its connections to other information and its historic background. This effectively highlights how a given piece of information can be framed in relation to the political, social, and economic issues that impact information users.

Of course, it is not so easy to come up with a concrete form that such a search and discovery interface will take. But one good starting point has been offered by Noble. An imaginary information discovery system named “imagine engine” presents the entire set of search results (for “Black girls” as an example) in a visual rainbow of color that symbolizes a controlled set of categories. Everything on the screen that is red connotes pornographic, while green indicates business- or commerce-related, everything orange is entertainment, and so forth. This approach makes the context of the search results explicit and denaturalizes the usual way ISEs display search results in a ranked page-by-page order.

If the ranking of search results itself is an expression of power and social relations, in which biases and prejudices are inevitably embedded, one good way to contextualize those results is to reveal those relations along with the search results. This creates an active way to prevent information users from simply accepting the one-dimensional way in which information is presented and remaining passive information consumers. If tomorrow’s library search and discovery is headed in this direction, we may get to see a library discovery system that is better aligned with a library’s mission, effective at developing critical information literacy, and quite different from today’s ISEs.

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Bohyun Kim is the Associate University Librarian for Library Information Technology at the University of Michigan Library.


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