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Issues in Science and Technology Librarianship
Spring 2010
DOI: 10.5062/F4R49NQ0

Book Reviews

Human Information Retrieval

David Hook
Manager, Operations Information and Configuration Management
Brampton, Ontario, Canada

Copyright 2010, David Hook. Used with permission.


Human Information Retrieval. Julian Warner. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 2010. ISBN 978-0-262-01344-4. $40.50

Our understanding of information retrieval to this point has largely been focused on the practical rather than the theoretical. There are many other books that have been written about information retrieval that look at such topics as search engine use and electronic text retrieval. But a theoretical account of information retrieval would offer more insight into our understanding of the subject.

Thus, with Human Information Retrieval, Julian Warner sets out to present, as he describes it, a "labor theoretic approach" to information retrieval. He builds on his previously established differentiations between semantic and syntactic mental labor and presents the argument that the description and search labor of information retrieval can be both semantic and syntactic in character.

Warner draws upon different disciplines to develop his theories, including the social sciences, information and computer science, and library sciences. He provides a historical context for human information retrieval, comparing modern day computer-based methods with paper-based methods and oral traditions. To illustrate his theories, Warner uses examples from literature, information sciences and modern systems such as WorldCat and Google.

The book is divided into nine chapters, each one developing cumulatively from the preceding chapters. After chapter one introduces the topic, chapters two through four establish the labor theoretic approach. Chapter two discusses selection power, which the author defines as "the human ability to make informed choices between objects and representations of objects" as well as selection labor, i.e., the labor required to produce selection power. Chapter three then discusses description and search labor. Chapter four ties the theoretic approach together. Then, chapters five through eight discuss information retrieval from full text. Chapter five introduces the topic; chapters six and seven discuss semantics and syntactics for retrieval from full text respectively. Finally, chapter nine gives the conclusions.

The book lists a number of supplementary readings and provides a lengthy bibliography. An index is included as well.

Julian Warner is a faculty member in the School of Management and Economics at Queen's University of Belfast. He has written a number of books on the human side of information retrieval such as Humanizing Information Technology, Information, Knowledge, Text, and From Writing to Computers.

Human Information Retrieval is clearly aimed at an academic audience. From its theoretical approach and writing style, this book is likely to have little value outside of purely theoretical academic use. In that environment, however, this book would be useful as it provides a unique perspective on the subject matter and develops semantics and syntactics in relation to "preexisting theories relevant to the information retrieval…the labor theory approach, and existing and emerging real-world practices."

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