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An interview with Lars Våge

Interview by: Margaret Adolphus

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Photo: Lars VågeLars Våge is a librarian at Mid-Sweden University Library. He is the author of books and articles in Swedish about searching for information on the Internet and blogging. Since 2001 he has co-written the blog which reports in Swedish about search engine news and developments. Lars spoke at the Online Information Conference in 2007 about new developments in European search engines.

The interview below was conducted by Margaret Adolphus in December 2007 at the Online Information event.

Can you describe your role as librarian at Mid-Sweden University?

Mid-Sweden University is a multiple campus, with three sites, in Härnösand, Sundsvall and Östersund. We have one library in each of the three campuses. I work in the Sundsvall library as an academic liaison librarian for the Department of Information Technology & Media. This means that I am responsible for library tuition and for the acquisition of relevant material and collection development in that area.

I teach information retrieval and information literacy skills: how to use the Web, what research databases we have available, and how to evaluate. Our students don’t use Web 2.0 much, it’s too specialized for their needs. We concentrate on helping them find the most important sources.

I also convene the working group for library tuition which seeks to improve methods for library instruction in information retrieval, as well as looking at appropriate pedagogic strategies.

What are the particular challenges of the job?

Our particular challenge is being on a multiple campus. Our three sites are not close geographically – they are 200 km apart. We don’t have a central library – we have one library in each of the three campuses. Each is specialized, but there is some overlap in the areas of business, health and nursing, and computer science. The general principle, though, is that Härnösand houses humanities, Sundsvall technology, and Östersund social science.

To make things easier for students, all our services are available digitally; for example, one can make a reservation for a book from another campus. All our databases are also fully accessible by proxy server both on and off campus, so you can consult them from home or wherever you are. We have a very high proportion of material in electronic form – print constitutes a much smaller part of our collection. We don’t have many e-books; publishers rarely offer the most interesting of their titles in e-book form. What we want is the latest editions of the textbooks.

Because the university covers such a wide area, many students study by distance learning. We aim to give distance learning students the same level of service as campus-based ones, and our challenge lies in reaching this goal. Students can access databases from wherever they are, and borrow, reserve and renew material online with a library card which they can also obtain electronically. Swedish students can receive material by post, although this may not apply to some course literature which is only available on short-loan on campus. "Ask the library" is an online chat and e-mail reference service.

You have a particular interest in search engines. What do you consider to be some of the most interesting recent developments?

For some years, the scene has been dominated by the large US search engines, such as Google, MSN, Yahoo and Ask. They’ve been very defensive, and Google for one isn’t innovating much at the moment, the other ones are a bit more daring, especially Ask. Much more interesting, but less high profile, are the experiments with the smaller, European search engines, including ones that specialize in a particular area, such as news or blogs.

Take for example the French Exalead, developed in 2000, the largest in Europe, with its own web crawler, and more advanced search features than other search engines. For example, the ability to select country and language is a particularly useful way of eliminating wasteful results. Figure 1, below, is a screenshot of the Exalead advanced search page.

Figure 1: The Exalead advanced search feature

Figure 1: The Exalead advanced search feature

Exalead is also developing Baagz, which will bring together a search and social networking facilities with the ability to store, organize and share information.

Then there are the developments in image search engines happening in Sweden. For example, Picsearch, first developed in 2001, which uses its own crawler to search the Web, and has a family friendly filter to exclude offensive material. It has licensed its image searching technology to other search engines. There are some others which are mostly still experimental or at Beta stage, but they represent interesting developments. PolarRose uses open source technology to index digital photos in the public domain with the same level of sophistication as that applied to text documents, using digital vision technology developed at the Universities of Lund and Malmö. ImBrowse allows you to search not just by keyword, but also by image, using the image’s URL to find similar images; you can also search by colour, texture, or shape.

Also interesting are the news search engines like the French wikio (whose homepage is depicted in Figure 2: Wikio, the French news search engine), which not only searches the media sites, but also allows you to create your own stories. You can also comment and vote on stories. So if you publish a story and it gets good voting and favourable comment, then it can help you build your career. It’s more in the Web 2.0 vein, encouraging creation as well as retrieval of content. Then there’s NewsNow, the UK’s biggest news portal, which indexes 27 000 news sources and blogs. Both these, however, have to compete with Google’s news service.

Figure 2: Wikio, the French news search engine

Figure 2: Wikio, the French news search engine

Other recent developments have looked at the display of results, often using interesting visual techniques and original interfaces. For example there’s the French Kartoo (see Figure 3: Ujiko’s interface), where the results are displayed on a map, sized according to their relevance, Ujikoo, also French, where they are grouped by theme, and the Russian Quintura, which also groups by theme, using a word cloud visual metaphor as shown in Figure 4: Quintura's interface.

Figure 3: Ujiko’s interface

Figure 3: Ujiko’s interface

Figure 4: Quintura's interface

Figure 4: Quintura's interface

Finally there’s the UK Web Archive, where you can browse old websites.

The EU is taking an interest in search engine development and is funding some projects, and it has also done some work in the area of privacy and protection of personal data.

We are now moving to a stage when we have search engines whose ordering of results is not just influenced by a mathematical algorithm, but by the users themselves. People can comment, recommend, vote, etc., and from that information the search engines can serve results that will be influenced by the users. This heralds a new trend: the social search engine which offers people a new way to interact with information.

Would you say that the availability of so many search engines has radically changed the way today’s generation of students accesses information?

Well, of course, when I was a student, we didn’t have computers! So we went to the library because that was what one did, the information was there. Now information comes to you, through search engines. I think attitudes must have changed dramatically because now people are accustomed to being served results simply by entering a few words. Because they get so used to getting lots of results with little effort, which might not be perfect or what they were originally looking for, they are happy to take second or third best. So probably they aren’t developing such good information seeking skills.

So, the temptation is take short cuts and become lazy. People don’t put in enough energy into their search and they are uncritical of the results. They need to be aware that there are a lot of other search engines apart from Google and that some of them can provide a more interesting interface and more relevant search results.

Where do you see yourselves in five years’ time?

Well, it will depend on the number of young people around! Universities get funding based on the number of students. If there is a decrease in student numbers, then universities will face economic problems.

Our ideal situation is to have funding for several years, then we can make plans. We are very dependent on student numbers, and on project funding. It’s not an ideal situation.