The Magic of Findability

In my last entry, I talked about library as social setting. Here I get to talk about the two additional points Hal Stern brought out in his blog entry: 1) the organization and preservation of knowledge for findability, and 2) the concept of serendipity in discovering information.

In the age of Google, of information almost literally at your fingertips, Hal states that "you need libraries and the organization they impose to an even greater extent." I believe that, too. But why is that?

All of us have experienced the crush and incoherency of too much information. Say I want to find out information on outsourcing. If I do a Google search at 10am Mountain Time on May 14, 2007, I get over 58 million hits.

The first two "sponsored" links are for CapGemini (a consulting services group) and Nortel (the Google or Services folks might know why this comes up, but I sure don't). I also get image search results for outsourcing. (Why do I need images for outsourcing?)

I get the Wikipedia entry for outsourcing, which is good; Wikipedia's always a fairly reliable place to get up to speed on a topic. On this first page of results, I also get The Outsourcing Institute, a BusinessWeek article, and InformationWeek's Outsourcing center - all good.

So I'm off to a good start. But say what I really want is some definitive guides on outsourcing. Suppose I want some case studies and best practices around outsourcing. Will I find things like The outsourcing handbook: how to implement a successful outsourcing process, by Mark J. Power, Kevin C. Desouza, and Carlo Bonifazi? If this does come up in my Google search, how will I access it? Do I have to buy it? How do I know the eBook version exists from NetLibrary and do I need to buy it?

In the end, how much is it going to cost me - and how much time will I need to spend - to get knowledgable about outsourcing - without having to wade through the massive amounts of information about outsourcing out there?

It all comes down to this: how do I find what I'm looking for, even when I may not be exactly sure of what I'm looking for?

Peter Morville recently coined the word findability. Findability essentially is a word expressing the characteristic of how easy it is to, well, find something. If you need a piece of information, how easily and quickly can you get access to it?

Libraries - in whatever form, and in whatever setting, whether the function is called a "library" or not - are all about findability. That's our JOB. That's our profession - and it has been for many many years. First, we identify and find the information, and then we make it findable for others. (This is one of the driving ideas behind a lot of the Web 2.0 tools and social tools out there: finding and connecting people and information in a variety of different ways, getting your hands on the information when and where you need it.)

Because of this basic fact of our profession, we're constantly trying to improve findability - not only for you, our customer, but also for ourselves. After all, if I'm doing research and I can't find something - even something I KNOW exists - I'm stuck. I can't find it, so it might as well not exist.

But if we've done a good job, then you can lay your hands on the information you need quickly. Or we can lay our hands on it quickly and get it to you.

And that's magic. That's the opposite experience I like to think we've all had. You need that critical piece of information, right now, and, bang, all of a sudden someone hands it to you, or it pops right up for you. It's a beautiful moment. It's a gratifying moment for everyone involved.

So next time you need to find something? You know where to go - to your librarians in your corporation, university or community. Unless it's your car keys. We can't help you there. Unless you tagged them with a social tagging tool. Did you look on the couch?

Next up: Serendipity.

Scott Brown
Digital Libraries & Research
Sun Learning Services


This may be where the semantic web is going. With the amount of information available, we really need a way for the machines to process meaning and intent for us; or for us to learn how to infuse meaning into our queries.

Posted by Brandon Carson on May 23, 2007 at 05:16 AM PDT #

I agree completely, Brandon. There is no doubt that findability will continue to improve as technology, standards and theory improve.

In the article, The Semantic Web Revisited, Berners-Lee and others re-examine the progress of the semantic web - and, I believe, emerge encouraged by the progress, though they state that "(t)he semantic theory (that) provides an account of "meaning" in which the logical connection of terms establishes interoperability between systems" has not yet been realized.

I think what's really interesting is how technology continues to wrestle with meaning - and in many instances, to date, loses that battle. WE know what we mean, and we know the nuances of what we mean, but meaning is so slippery (and will continue to be, as long as we are human) that technology is almost always bound to come up short. Until Skynet comes along, of course, and then the humans will rise up again, and, well, it all gets a bit messy from there.

I do believe that technology is capable of things we can't even imagine now - this proves itself out time and again. After all, don't we all look kind of like Star Trek characters with our phasers when we're checking our cell phones? However, I also like to balance my faith in techology and structure with healthy doses of skepticism :)

Posted by Scott Brown on May 23, 2007 at 11:20 PM PDT #

Hi Scott,

I am from NetBeans Community Docs Team and we also worked on "findability" issue[1] recently.


Although, I came across this entry today, but really its been worth reading and I will continue reading other posts as well.

Have a good day!

Posted by Varun on December 07, 2008 at 11:22 PM PST #

Varun, thanks for your comment and for the pointer. I think this is an issue that will stay with us for a long time - in many ways findability continues to get better and better, but in some ways it also gets more complicated, especially with the explosion of information and new information tools that are constantly emerging and evolving. It's an amazing journey!

Posted by Scott Brown on December 09, 2008 at 03:21 AM PST #

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