SJSU Portfolio

Competency #5

Design, query and evaluate information retrieval systems

If the viewer will forgive the expletive, this scene from High Fidelity illustrates the fundamental challenges involved in information retrieval competence. Competencies 5, 6, and 7 are all closely related, concerned with information use in the broadest sense. In the cataloging system with which my own brain organizes incoming information, I would prefer that # 6 (“basic concepts and principles related to the creation, evaluation, selection, acquisition, preservation and organization of specific items or collections of information”) would be the first in this section of the Competencies, since creating or acquiring a collection precedes cataloging or retrieving from it. In the realm of Competency #6, the lovesick record collector, Rob, has first acquired, created, preserved, and organized a collection of information in the form of vinyl recordings. In search of personal consolation Rob has now moved back into the set of skills outlined in Competency #7, creating a new structure for his collection of information in the form of vinyl albums by physically shifting and then cataloging his items based on his personal associations with each recording. Should Rob wish to take the last step and evaluate his information retrieval system under Competency #5, he would be reminded that his subjective system will never be useful for anyone besides himself, and perhaps more surprising to him, may also find that his personally meaningful web of autobiographical associations is unstable and inconsistent over time.

To query his system, as Rob tells us,“You’d have to know” specific details of his personal life. Although Rob and Dick, evaluating the system, find it “comforting”, usually we evaluate an information retrieval system on a much more pedestrian basis: is the IR system likely to bring the maximum pieces of information the searcher desires, and the minimum of pieces of information she does not? The skills and abilities required by a competent librarian designing an information retrieval system which is broadly useful and stable over time can range across a broad spectrum. At a Dewey-organized elementary school library I visited, a past library worker labeled all the early ‘chapter books’ for beginning readers as ‘BR’, which is marked on book spines with bright green tape. The catalog also labels these books as ‘BR’ ; even though still shelved alphabetically among the ‘E’s, these books can be easily retrieved in a search. At the other end of the spectrum of purpose and skill, a librarian may need sophisticated technological abilities and a deep understanding of information structures to construct a searchable database in digital format. Both examples have in common a knowledge of the collection, its purpose, and its users which is fundamental to competency in this area.

Consideration of competency in querying an IR system to retrieve desired information reveals the complexity of contemporary issues in our field. Google is the digital elephant in the room as we examine this competency. Few users today, accustomed to the broad, forgiving subject searches supported by free online search engines, are willing to work with old style information retrieval systems, with their sometimes obscure controlled vocabulary. Yet as professionals we know that most available high–quality information will not be retrieved by a Google search, stored as it is in systems requiring a more sophisticated and structured organization. Currently there is a wide gap in evaluations of IR systems, between even the educated general public and trained professionals. A teacher colleague of mine recently told me in disgust that there was not one article on William Faulkner in the Ebsco database offered through our school library. I found that she had tried ‘Faulkner’ and ‘ Faulkner, William’ in the subject search, and she was right—no results. We tried ‘Faulkner, William J’, which brought one. When I showed her how to dig into the controlled vocabulary thesaurus of the database, it turned out there were in fact 736 articles listed— under ‘Faulkner, William, 1897— 1962’. Currently, a librarian shows competence in information retrieval through acting as a knowledgeable guide for users to complex IR systems which are potentially more rewarding but far less accessible than Google. As we construct IR systems for the future, our profession must be fully aware of the quandary: our mission demands increase in the accessibility of stored information; justification for our professional existence relies in part on the obscure difficulty of many searches.

As proof of my competency in designing information retrieval systems, I offer a controlled vocabulary thesaurus which my partner, Jamie Renton, and I constructed for a DBText database we created of articles relating to American literature on the PBX collection of NPR radio articles. All my PBX—related work was assigned by Dr. Edna Reid for her Libr 202 class. I am also providing a link to a Public Radio Exchange blog entry describing the work done by our class with the PBX collection.

My awareness of the challenges and skills involved in searching a database is reflected in the users’ guide created by my partner, Jamie Renton and I for the controlled vocabulary/ thesaurus displayed above. The guide reflects my awareness of common recurring problems among even educated users of library databases. I am satisfied with this document; several of my high school colleagues have found it useful.

My own ability to search a complicated database is shown in the report I prepared during my internship at the California Maritime Academy for Libr 294. For new courses being considered at CMA, I was asked to provide an overview of best practices in online education, including useful examples and resources from the MERLOT (Multimedia Educational Resource for Learning and Online Teaching) peer-reviewed collection of material related to online learning, a project affiliated with the California State University system. . I experienced some of the problems with designing and maintaining information retrieval systems, as many of the promising links no longer worked, or did not work correctly.Another assignment for Dr. Reid’s class specifically required us to evaluate an information retrieval system, especially its user interface. Applying the principles of user interface and information retrieval system evaluation to an IR system I use constantly helped me understand how actual user practices and needs connect to general standards of the profession.


MaasBiolab (2008, August 5). High fidelity—autobiographical record collection [Video file]. Retrieved from" type="application/x-shockwave-flash

Bevan, T. & Simmons, R. (Producers), & Frears, S. (Director). (2000). High Fidelity [Motion Picture]. USA: Buena Vista Pictures