I seek, you seek, they all seek for information in context

At the 2022 ISIC (Information Seeking in Context) biennial conference, held in Berlin, information researchers from around the world gathered to share their research about information seeking behaviours. If that all sounds very academic and scholarly, it mainly was. But that doesn't mean practicing librarians couldn't come away with a few nuggets they could use.

The ISIC conference, which was preceded by a day devoted to a doctoral workshop, began with an opening speech by Pamela McKenzie, University of Western Ontario, Canada, who took the concept of the Cosmic Zoom as a starting point for studying information practices in context. Cosmic Zoom is a 1968 Canadian animated film that starts with a shot of a boy rowing a boat on a river with his dog. It zooms out gradually from the boy to the galaxy, then zooms back in to a neural level of the boy with a mosquito on his hand. McKenzie Cosmic Zoomed on nametags at a library event to study the role of public libraries in early childhood education, but warned of the danger of using school readiness and early literacy to show the value of public libraries. She talked about flattening using the landscape of social, localizing the global and globalizing the local.

Examining Search

Danica Pawlick-Potts, also from the University of Western Ontario, looked at the effect of AI and machine learning on how much trust people place in web search engines. Google’s algorithms that reinforce beliefs already held give a perception of autonomy and discretionary power to searchers. As information professionals know, however, AI is not completely trustworthy. Yet people may still engage in misplaced trust based on the perception of moral autonomy and may react in a social manner leading to the formation of trust attitudes. She advocated developing interventions that will encourage users to stay critically engaged with their interactions with information systems, even when they perceive them to be autonomous.

In her presentation, Ying-Hsang Liu, Oslo Metropolitan University, discussed research done in collaboration with Pia Borlund and Nils Pharo about information seeking behaviour in an international interdisciplinary research project. Noting that individual disciplines have their own cultures about managing timelines, qualitative versus quantitative research, and scholarly norms, they found that perceptions of usability also differ. Some disciplines are user-centred while others are data-centred. Images can be used as search queries. The individual ways people search are often suboptimal, plus people don’t always recognize their actual information need.

Revealing information in the patent literature by examining the drawings within a patent was the topic of a paper by Johanna Zellmer, Stefanie Elbeshausen, and Christa Womser-Hacker, University of Hildesheim, Germany. They interviewed patent search experts to see how these visual elements could be integrated into the search process to better analyse the relevant of patents. Requirements for visual patent retrieval must be derived from actual user needs.

Primary research was the focus of Yi-Yu Wang and Chi-Shiou Lin, National Taiwan University, who studied artefactual literacy-related abilities in historians’ archival search behaviour. External criticism-related includes understanding the production context of primary sources, the ability to differentiate between intentional and unintentional sources, and the ability to cope with language limitations. Comparing documents with different perspectives was a component on internal criticism-related abilities. One example was official reports to the emperor in China’s Ching (Qing) dynasty.

Discussing Search

Information seeking behaviour covers a lot of ground. Not only are there aspects involving the evolving technologies powering search engines but also issues around access, societal challenges, information literacy, and mis/disinformation. Presentations ranged from how illegal drugs are marketed on the Dark Web from a Finnish perspective, to the role opaque, rapidly changing algorithms play for YouTube content creators, and an analysis of OA and repositories in Lithuania.

The pandemic came in for its share of discussion about how working, educating, and learning from home affected search behaviour and possibly led to an explosion of misinformation on health topics. Although the pandemic will, we all hope, fade as a major event, the establishment of false information’s dominance in the search world is likely to continue. That, plus new developments in information seeking behaviour will keep interest in the global ISIC conference high.