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Searching and Browsing: Lessons for Life from Libraries

Our campus is in the midst of moving from one email/calendar solution to another, and from local network storage to cloud storage. (Specifically, we’re moving from Zimbra to Gmail and Google Calendar, and from local network storage to Dropbox — we already use Google Drive but it doesn’t fill all the needs in the file storage area.) So all of a sudden there’s this moment where the campus gets to/has to think about individual and departmental practices and figure out if these processes can or must change during the transition. (Personally, I totally geek out on these kinds of conversations, but you’re not surprised to hear that, I’m sure.) Tucked into these conversations, there’s a topic in which two very entrenched camps face off: Do you rely on search to find your email or files? Or do you rely on a folder structure? In library terms this comes back to the age old balancing of search vs browse.

Here’s the thing (and take it from a librarian, because we’ve built a whole profession on this over many many many years) most people cannot rely only on Search or only on Browse. Most people need to have mechanisms that allow for both.

Here’s why. Search relies on there being the right letters-in-a-row in your query, which the computer then matches to the letters-in-a-row contained in the items it indexes or in the metadata associated with those items. If there’s a misspelling, if there’s more than one word for the thing you’re searching on and the other person used the other word, or if there’s no built in metadata for the type of thing you’re trying to gather, search will fail you. Search will be useful in many ways and may even be your primary entry point into your saved emails or files, but it is not sufficient.

This means that there also have to be mechanisms that allow for smart browsing. In email and file storage, these mechanisms are folders or tags or labels or whatever. In library catalogs these are subject headings and call numbers. These are the things that get applied in a consistent way to say “all of these messages are related in a meaningful way, regardless of the keywords and metadata.” It would take too much time to make everything browsable in all possible ways, so Search is also important if you have anything more than a very few emails or files. So Browse won’t work all the time, but it is important.

For me, it’s important that I have a way to browse just the emails between me and my students because I really can’t remember all the names of everyone who meets with me, or what words we used in our emails, so if I want to be able to go back to a conversation the only thing in my head that I can use as a hook to go back into my email and pull relevant messages out is “student.” So I created a folder for that. I have similar folders for major projects where I know I’ll need to skim back over information that I can’t gather together through a search. The same principle governs my folder structure on my computer.

For me, I rely heavily on search, especially for email. Probably 85% of my email goes into the main archived email bin without being tagged or put into a folder. But I’ve searched for enough things in my life that I know for sure and certain that it won’t solve all my retrieval needs. Browsing is also critical.

And just for a few more thoughts on organizing your stuff, here’s an archivist talking in simple and useful ways about using her professional training to help her with her computer files. Enjoy!

Published inRandom Thoughts