Information Retrieval and Relational Databases (in the library)

Following last week’s (somewhat challenging) DITA lecture on ‘Information Retrieval and Relational Databases’ I was reassured by how soon the practical relevance of these areas came to light in a library context.

Part of my role as a Library Assistant involves the fairly typical task of checking a range of automatically produced reports each morning, including lists of items to be cleared from the hold shelf and users with overdue books. I had previously ignored the reams of seemingly indecipherable code at the top of the reports, skipping past that to the information I needed. On Tuesday morning though I noticed the prefix ‘SQL’ in the code – identifying it as the ‘Structured Query Language’ used to manage a relational database management system (RDBMS), which I had been trying to get my head around the day before.

The RDBMS in this case was of course the library management system (LMS), and the SQL had been coded to retrieve the necessary information about library patrons and items from the relevant modules. Although my job (at least for now) does not require me to actually understand or work with SQL in its original form – this is either preprogrammed and automated within the LMS, or simplified through the LMS’s user interface – it has been very useful to gain more of an understanding (albeit still limited) about processes which I had previously taken for granted.

The field of Information Retrieval is also one where it is arguably increasingly easy to ignore what is happening in the background, and assume that we can simply type what we want into a box and instantly access the information we need. One thing I have noticed in my short time working in libraries is the movement towards new ‘discovery layers’, which can be seen as the library world’s response to the success and dominance of search engines such as Google. These are designed to ‘sit’ on top of, or even replace, a more traditional online public access catalog (OPAC). For example the library I work in has recently introduced a version of Ex Libris’s Primo, and of course I must mention CityLibrary Search, powered by ProQuest’s Summon and launched last year.

Theoretically these discovery tools allow for much broader searching than was previously possible with an OPAC alone, stretching further beyond a library’s physical collections. This includes the ability to search across multiple databases, and directly access full text versions of journal articles without having to traverse layers and layers of access. This article from 2010, when the idea of discovery layers or ‘interfaces’ was beginning to take hold, nicely summarises their advantages and the challenges involved, with the conclusion that:

“While the concepts seem quite attractive, it will only be through the experience of library users that these products will either prove themselves or not. We should expect to see a continual process of filling in the gaps of content that products are able to address and ongoing refinements of the search and retrieval technologies involved.”

Personally I think this kind of progress should be encouraged and implemented, but with an awareness of different users’ needs and a willingness to take feedback and adapt accordingly. There will always be some people who find this kind of change difficult and potentially stressful, which is why I think libraries have a responsibility to include a period of crossover and consultation before old systems are completely superseded.

Even with the highly advanced search and retrieval technologies we now have available, we still need certain skills and knowledge of effective searching techniques if we want to truly resolve our ‘information needs’. We explored this in our computer lab session last week, playing around with a bit of Boolean logic, which Tom and Dom have discussed in more detail in their latest posts. For the time being at least I think we can rest assured that library and information professionals still have a very important role to play in educating people and guiding them through changes in information retrieval, with resources such as this.

Featured image: Learning SQL, John Carter. Source: Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA)

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2 responses to “Information Retrieval and Relational Databases (in the library)

  1. Nice job. I can sympathise with many of your points here, as the library I work at is also implementing new systems, and it’s really important to be able to look at how things work from a user perspective, and not just the way we *think* users search. Great food for thought…

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Great stuff, thanks for the link as well! Completely agree that any new systems should be user-centric and most of all user friendly! As you say though, library staff need to be able to understand it as well. I can really relate to discovering links between work and the stuff we’re doing in DITA the more tasks I’m involved in, which is encouraging!

    Liked by 1 person

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