Sometime in the latter 1990s I was looking for a passage in a book that I owned. It was a revelation to discover that I could find the passage online more easily than I could by first locating my copy of the book, then scanning it and using its index. I’ve since re-enacted that scenario many times, most recently the other day when I was looking for the Diane Deutsch quotation about perfect pitch that appears in Oliver Sacks’ Musicophilia. In this case I had a library copy of the book on my desk. The text I was looking for is on page 125 of the library’s edition. As I like to do now and then, I made notes on the search strategy that got me to that page.
What I remembered of the passage was the analogy between pitch discrimination and color discrimination, so I began by searching the book using, somewhat arbitrarily, Google Books. My search term was simply color. The outcome of this naive attempt was both lucky and unlucky. Luckily it produced the most memorable part of the passage:
Suppose you showed someone a red object and asked him to name the color … Then you juxtaposed a blue object and named its color, and he responded, “OK,
Unluckily there was no preview available for the page. And the number of the found page was given as 134, which didn’t match the library edition I had on my desk. So I switched to Amazon. But the trip through Google Books was not useless. I came away with a much more discriminating phrase with which to search Amazon: red object.
Armed with that phrase, I found the page on Amazon right away, and the preview was available. But it wasn’t fully available: it ended in the middle of the passage I wanted. And again the page was given as 134, which differed from my edition.
Now, though, I had a partial page preview that showed me the layout of the page I was looking for. It was distinguished by a large indented block quote. I also had rough idea of where to look in the book: somewhere near page 134. Armed with these inputs I was able to scan the library book and zero in on page 125.
We don’t often enough name or describe the knowledge, the skills, and the techniques that enable successful search. To the extent that we do, we tend to suggest that there’s a best search engine, or a best search strategy, but the real story is subtler. Often, as in this case, the theme of the story is a pipeline of components. Here’s an illustration of the pipeline:
The mental model that drives this pipeline includes these assumptions:
There are multiple components. In this case: Google Books, Amazon, and the library book.
The components are differently searchable. Google Books and Amazon provide fulltext search; the book’s affordances are page-scanning and an index.
Search results are differently viewable. Google Books and Amazon may or may not provide previews; the book in hand is fully viewable.
The searchable components yield varying results depending on both input terms and available previews.
It’s possible, maybe likely, that no single component will lead to the desired result
A partial result from one search component can be piped into another search component.
I use the same approach when I search the web using Google and Bing in parallel. We have a cornucopia of tools at our disposal. We don’t expect to use the same screwdriver for every task; tools vary in their affordances and uses; we keep an evolving collection in our kits and combine them in novel ways to meet evolving challenges. To speak of a best search engine is as meaningless as to speak of a best screwdriver. When we teach “computer literacy” we need to develop the intuition that there’s no best information tool, but that there is a best model for using these tools.