Russell, Daniel M. The joy of search: A Google insider's guide to going beyond the basics. The MIT Press, 2019. xii, 323 p. ISBN 978-0-262-04287-1. $29.95
If you think carefully, you will have to agree that a librarian and, especially, a reference librarian is a kind of detective. This side of the profession was cleverly exploited by the writers of the detective stories, especially, in the United States. Both professions involve a very important component of research and trailing the clues till you solve your mystery or answer the query. But research is most probably closer to the work of the new librarian or information professional as is proved by Daniel M. Russel in his serious and entertaining book.
I do not need to use any search engine or Wikipedia to find out that Daniel M. Russell is Senior Research Scientist for Search Quality and User Happiness at Google. This information is provided on the dust jacket of the book. I also find a longer biographic note in Wikipedia and some other online sources, presenting him as an educator, developer of innovative teaching technologies, researcher for several most important hi-tech companies. His blog, from which this book took its start, SearchReSearch is readily availabe for anyone. From the book and his own blog we can find out that his main hobbies are scuba diving and running. He sees himself as an ultimate search professional and derives greatest pleasure from hunting for the answers to different questions. And I would guess that as the best professionals he is smart enough to get paid (and most probably much more than a humble reference librarian) for what he would happily do for free.
The book is conceived as a guide for developing of online research skills, helping to understand what tools are available for answering a variety of questions and how to apply them in the most efficient ways. In fact, it would not be very different from a wide range of textbooks for reference work in libraries, but for one thing - it is entertaining and stimulating. Another important difference is the audience that the author addresses: he thinks that everyone should be able to master the skills of advanced online search, not only just one group of professionals, librarians or information searchers, or anyone else.
The major source of attraction to the text is the sense of adventure that Daniel M. Russell creates on the pages by presenting a possible question worth answering, then dissects it teasing out what that particular question actually asks and how to approach it. Then the reader is given the possibility to trace each step taken by the researcher, looking at each tool used in the process, and reflect what was important and helpful in finding the answer or what went wrong. It is as entertaining as following work of a detective in a story with one big difference that nothing is concealed from you. The book demonstrates not only the search skills and knowledge of the author, but also his exceptional teaching and mentoring ability.
This ability can be traced in every element of the book. The body of the book consists of 17 chapters focusing on particular research queries and the process of finding answers to them. Before this, the introduction explains why and how one should use the book to improve search skills - telling the readers what the book is about. Two final chapters summarize the book in the rules of thumb for asking great questions and explanation of how the search skills of today last into the unknown technology future - telling the readers what the book was about. Each of 17 cases presented in the book are of different nature and each subsequent one is slightly more complex than the previous one or introduces a different aspect of search. The opening case is especially exciting and seems quite mysterious building the suspense for the reader. Answering it depends on ones knowledge of appropriate tools and attention to details. It is far from trivial and requires technical competence to learn and use the tools, but extremely less complicated than the final one, involving the ancient tools of archival investigation.
Each chapter consists not only of the detective story, but also summarizes the Research lessons and introduce further challenging question in Try it yourself part. Almost each chapter also provides a short extraction on search methods, procedures of tools used in the presented example in the part how to do it. I was so intrigued that despite busy schedule went through some of the challenges and pursued some of those presented on the blog. The latest one on the blog about the number of countries in the world has reminded me how I tried to get the answer to exactly the same question for my dissertation back in the beginning of 1980s without computers to help. What a difference in tools and how similar the contextual challenges, especially, the political ones!
The book is superbly illustrated and provides a wealth of knowledge on different online visualisation and exploration tools with concrete images of what the results should look like. It is also full of useful practical advice and creates a sense that one can achieve fascinating results or at least learn how to apply these wonderful tools for ones own needs.
I would consider myself quite a decent searcher and to some extent a professional. I have learned reference tools and process as a student, worked as a reference librarian and even taught search strategies to my pre-PC age students (I was also born in that pre-internet and pre-PC era, just like the author of the book). I was happy to find out that the method of study that we applied in these ancient times is used by the advanced search teachers today. We used to present our students with the real-life questions of library users, send them hunting for answers, and discussed the tools and sources used to find them, even if they were only card catalogues, dusty abstract journals, heavy encyclopedia volumes or patent databases on CDs. As far as I know, my presently aging students also transferred their search competence to the Internet that serves as a proof that if you understand search strategy and the changing nature of tools, you will be able to use your competence despite any changes.
My hope is in tune with Daniel M. Russelßl's expectation that changes of the content sources and tools will become more integrated, more intuitive and accessible for users rather than fragmented and proprietary. The education directed towards increasing digital, information, media, data and all other literacies that we can think of is a necessary part of increasing search and research ability. The book under review seeks developing in its readers a wide range of what is included in these literacies.
But I also think that to some extent the book proves that we need high level search professionals, just as the author of the book and modern reference librarians. Very few people have or will have the deep interest in search to pursue it as their main hobby or even learn it as a survival skill. It requires time and commitment that many people will devote to something they appreciate more than learning how to find answers to any possible questions even if this will give special advantage in any further activity. These professionals will be needed to help in design of new tools and teach the competence as Daniel M. Russell is doing, but also to save the time of a surgeon, engineer, opera singer or an economist, so that they do not spend 3-10-24 or even more hours chasing an answer to a question when a professional can do it in 10-60-120 minutes or less. And in contrast with the author I am more pessimistic about many people becoming efficient in high quality search and mastering shortcuts to perform searh in 3 instead of 30 minutes (p. 1).
Regardless of my pessimistic outlook, the book should attract a wide audience of users, students and teachers in schools and universities. It may be used for individual development, class teaching, group studies and in many other ways. And it is definitely fun to follow the blog of the author and apply his recommendations in solving many fascinating problems crossing our minds.
University of Borås
How to cite this review
Maceviciute, E. (2020). Review of: Russell, Daniel M. The joy of search: A Google insider's guide to going beyond the basics. The MIT Press, 2019. Information Research, 25(1), review no. R683 [Retrieved from http://www.informationr.net/ir/reviews/revs683.html]
Information Research is published four times a year by the University of Borås, Allégatan 1, 501 90 Borås, Sweden.