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DigiCULT 13
By Joost van Kasteren
t seems simple: you type a few words and at the
blink of an eye thousands of documents contain-
ing a wealth of information appear at your fin-
gertips. `It seems like progress', says Jussi Karlgren from
the Swedish Institute of Computer Science
, `but, in
fact, a lot of embedded help has disappeared. In the
offline world, a publisher packages the content along
perceived user needs. And, a good librarian or book-
seller will create easy-to-use search trails. In my view,
special tools are needed to help people survive the
digital information flood.'
Karlgren is an expert in language technology and
works with real users in an experimental setting. From
his observations, the existing general tools for infor-
mation retrieval generate a whole lot of bits and piec-
es that are very difficult to assess for the user, unless
you are a specialist in the field. `If I am a user out on
a search for information on drums used by Shamans
in Lapland, I do not only want a picture of the drums,
but I also want to know what they are used for, what
role they play in the Saami culture, and what the
existing views of anthropologists are. With the tools
for retrieval I have to figure it out all by myself. There
is no go-between for digital information sources. The
user has to do the work the publisher or the editor
of a magazine used to do, i.e. judging the relevance
of the information, arranging it in a logical order and
interpreting it. It seems like progress but in the mean-
time the user has lost a lot of helping hands in trying
to make sense of information.'
`The problem is that we are looking too hard for
general tools to retrieve information that can be used
by any user from now until eternity. A kind of Holy
Grail, which is not very useful, because the use of
information changes over time. Just look at news-
papers from fifty or even twenty years ago. They are
very different from today's papers, because they reflect
changes in the publisher's anticipation of users' needs
over time. We have to realise and to accept that the
retrieval systems of today will be obsolete in five or
ten years' time.'
Karlgren predicts that, as the amount of information
is growing, there is a need for more specialised case
tools to support the user in finding the information
he needs. A kind of information brokerage, either ful-
ly automatic or partly manual, that is comparable with
the role publishers, editors and writers used to play
and still play. There are already brokers on the Inter-
net, for instance for booking hotels, but they are not
fully geared towards users' needs.
Karlgren: `Partly to protect their own interests they
do not give you the phone number of the hotel.
While you might need it because you have a baby
with you and want to know if they can cater for him
as well. What you actually want as a user is a broker
you can trust. Who can point you in the right direc-
tion and gives you information you can use. If you
are going to buy a vacuum cleaner you do not need
the one-sided information of the seller, nor a list of all
vacuum cleaners in the world, but you need someone
to help you to express your needs and find the right
information to fulfil that need.'
The need for tools tailored towards users' needs
is very good news for cultural heritage institutions,
according to Karlgren. `Cultural heritage institutions
are a bit wary about giving out information. Not so
much because they want to make money out of it,
but because of their reputation. They want the people
to know that they provided the information, but they
do not want other people to mess around with that
information, thus indirectly giving them a bad
name or without giving them the credit they deserve.
If you have tailored tools for accessing the informa-
tion, you can keep track of its usage.
So, if during a search on the Internet someone
stumbles on to information on Shaman drums from
the north of Finland, it should be clear right away
that the information is coming from, let's say, the
Nordic Museum of Stockholm and that it is linked to
information on the role of these drums in the Samen
culture, the existing views on the subject and so forth.
Or, to put it another way, you immediately present
yourself as a trustworthy guide or broker to help the
user fulfil his information needs.'