Oct. 31, 2006

Who's Searching?

When writing an essay, few moments are more brilliant than finally coming up with that sublime thesis or finding the ideal sources to build an argument on. In my case, forming the perfect thesis statement is a skill that has developed from years of practice and hours of staring at piles of research notes and scratch sheets. On the other hand, stumbling upon articles and primary documents that form the foundation of a good essay has been just that: a serendipitous find amidst hours of trolling through marginal information.

A search query on the Internet or in library catalogue comes up with a reasonable number of relevant results, but upon reading the abstract, introduction, or index, it is apparent that the book or article in question simply does not have the right information. Sound familiar? Of course! This is a common situation for researchers because computers do not yet have the ability to effectively search full texts and consistently come up with the best results. The critical analysis skills that people possess are still crucial for interpreting and bringing together bodies of text; therefore, it is pivotal that these skills continue to be nurtured by humanists.

Computers can identify themes but not necessarily a thesis; they can pick out text but cannot read subtext… yet. The shortcomings of current text-analysis tools should prompt researchers to add more descriptive mark-up to texts, whereby computers might be able to identify the more subtle elements in bodies of text. Programs that search for patterns within text already exist, and researchers are developing software that can identify sarcasm or humour in a dialogue. There is still a great deal of growth occurring that to make digital technology a more powerful tool for text analysis and scholarly research.

On the other hand, it is important (and perhaps a little reassuring) to realize that digital technology only aids critical analysis rather than replacing this process. For the past two weeks, we have been discussing technology that facilitates research. Pattern matching and visualization as well as using spiders to search through ever-growing databases offer sophisticated means for individuals to get answers to questions. The fact is though, that the bleary-eyed student, the amateur historian, the established academic, and the casual enthusiast all want quality results quickly. Is each person going through the same critical process, and if not, are the tools that are being created for all of them?

The digital tools that are being developed to facilitate research are for people who want an answer to a question. Experienced researchers want tools that can search through massive databases and aggregate and organize large bodies of information, and it seems that technological advances favour their work. If digital humanists ignore the other individuals needing quality tools to perform digital research though, they might be discouraging these budding researchers from practicing analytic skills. By making research tools available to researchers other than academics and making these tools accessible by explaining how these tools aid in doing research, digital humanists are not only democratizing the resources used for research but also encouraging the process of critical thinking itself.

As computers learn to how to do a better job of searching for and collecting data, individuals outside of academia will want to take advantage of improved access to information. Although (Or perhaps because) not everybody will go beyond the single-box search, digital humanists should be intentional in their efforts to promote critical analysis among members of the computer-using public. The availability of sophisticated digital research aids encourages critical thinking by making people aware that the single-box search is not the be-all-and-end-all of digital research. By using more specific search techniques, discovering that ideal source might feel less like rummaging and more like the result of practice and skill. Brilliant!