Tuesday, 6 December 2011

Review of 'Innovations in Information Retrieval: Perspectives for Theory and Practice'

Edited by Allen Foster and Pauline Rafferty
2011, London: Facet, 224pp, £44.95,
ISBN 978-1-85604-697-8

When I recently told a fellow librarian I was reviewing a book on information retrieval (IR) she denied that the concept had any relevance to librarianship any more – it’s now (allegedly) all about the fuzzier and friendlier ‘resource discovery’. IR has always been a particular interest of computer-science departments, but this book argues, against my colleague, for its continued wider relevance and validity.

Behind the catch-all title lies a deep vein of historical analysis and a wide range of perspectives on IR in practice. David Bawden asks what happens to browsability and serendipity when most information-seeking acts take place online. Aida Slavic gives an up-to-the-minute report from the overlapping borders of semantics, linked data and classification. Three chapters deal respectively with the retrieval of music information, fiction, and the usefulness of social tagging. The final two chapters investigate searchers’ interaction with information objects, and search engines through the lens of webometrics (i.e. the quantitative aspects of the Web).

There are gems here but there are also obsolete data (studies of AltaVista and HotBot tell us nothing about how Google works today), careless mistakes (a reference to “Julie” Kristeva), irrelevancies (we are told that Yahoo! China has “particularly good coverage of China”), and text that could benefit from greater editorial invention. The extensive research being carried out by the Goliaths of the internet is entirely absent, though Microsoft and Google have large research divisions. But the book makes the case for IR being an expansive area of study, and the academy-centred magpie approach is ideally suited to its defined target audience – master’s-level students in ILS wanting information and inspiration. The volume, in different ways, offers both.

Colin Higgins, Librarian, St Catharine's College Cambridge