Modern Information Retrieval
Chapter 1: Introduction


next up previous
Next: 4. The Retrieval Process Up: 1. Introduction Previous: 2. Basic Concepts


3. Past, Present, and Future

1. Early Developments

For approximately 4000 years, man has organized information for later retrieval and usage. A typical example is the table of contents of a book. Since the volume of information eventually grew beyond a few books, it became necessary to build specialized data structures to ensure faster access to the stored information. An old and popular data structure for faster information retrieval is a collection of selected words or concepts with which are associated pointers to the related information (or documents) -- the index. In one form or another, indexes are at the core of every modern information retrieval system. They provide faster access to the data and allow the query processing task to be speeded up. A detailed coverage of indexes and their usage for searching can be found in Chapter 8.

For centuries, indexes were created manually as categorization hierarchies. In fact, most libraries still use some form of categorical hierarchy to classify their volumes (or documents), as discussed in Chapter 15. Such hierarchies have usually been conceived by human subjects from the library sciences field. More recently, the advent of modern computers has made possible the construction of large indexes automatically. Automatic indexes provide a view of the retrieval problem which is much more related to the system itself than to the user need. In this respect, it is important to distinguish between two different views of the IR problem: a computer-centered one and a human-centered one.

In the computer-centered view, the IR problem consists mainly of building up efficient indexes, processing user queries with high performance, and developing ranking algorithms which improve the `quality' of the answer set. In the human-centered view, the IR problem consists mainly of studying the behavior of the user, of understanding his main needs, and of determining how such understanding affects the organization and operation of the retrieval system. According to this view, keyword based query processing might be seen as a strategy which is unlikely to yield a good solution to the information retrieval problem in the long run.

In this book, we focus mainly on the computer-centered view of the IR problem because it continues to be dominant in the market place.

2. Information Retrieval in the Library

Libraries were among the first institutions to adopt IR systems for retrieving information. Usually, systems to be used in libraries were initially developed by academic institutions and later by commercial vendors. In the first generation, such systems consisted basically of an automation of previous technologies (such as card catalogs) and basically allowed searches based on author name and title. In the second generation, increased search functionality was added which allowed searching by subject headings, by keywords, and some more complex query facilities. In the third generation, which is currently being deployed, the focus is on improved graphical interfaces, electronic forms, hypertext features, and open system architectures.

Traditional library management system vendors include Endeavor Information Systems Inc., Innovative Interfaces Inc., and EOS International. Among systems developed with a research focus and used in academic libraries, we distinguish Okapi (at City University, London), MELVYL (at University of California), and Cheshire II (at UC Berkeley). Further details on these library systems can be found in Chapter 15

3. The Web and Digital Libraries

If we consider the search engines on the Web today, we conclude that they continue to use indexes which are very similar to those used by librarians a century ago. What has changed then?

Three dramatic and fundamental changes have occurred due to the advances in modern computer technology and the boom of the Web. First, it became a lot cheaper to have access to various sources of information. This allows reaching a wider audience than ever possible before. Second, the advances in all kinds of digital communication provided greater access to networks. This implies that the information source is available even if distantly located and that the access can be done quickly (frequently, in a few seconds). Third, the freedom to post whatever information someone judges useful has greatly contributed to the popularity of the Web. For the first time in history, many people have free access to a large publishing medium.

Fundamentally, low cost, greater access, and publishing freedom have allowed people to use the Web (and modern digital libraries) as a highly interactive medium. Such interactivity allows people to exchange messages, photos, documents, software, videos, and to `chat' in a convenient and low cost fashion. Further, people can do it at the time of their preference (for instance, you can buy a book late at night) which further improves the convenience of the service. Thus, high interactivity is the fundamental and current shift in the communication paradigm. Searching the Web is covered in Chapter 13, while digital libraries are covered in Chapter 15.

In the future, three main questions need to be addressed. First, despite the high interactivity, people still find it difficult (if not impossible) to retrieve information relevant to their information needs. Thus, in the dynamic world of the Web and of large digital libraries, which techniques will allow retrieval of higher quality? Second, with the ever increasing demand for access, quick response is becoming more and more a pressing factor. Thus, which techniques will yield faster indexes and smaller query response times? Third, the quality of the retrieval task is greatly affected by the user interaction with the system. Thus, how will a better understanding of the user behavior affect the design and deployment of new information retrieval strategies?

4. Practical Issues

Electronic commerce is a major trend on the Web nowadays and one which has benefited millions of people. In an electronic transaction, the buyer usually has to submit to the vendor some form of credit information which can be used for charging for the product or service. In its most common form, such information consists of a credit card number. However, since transmitting credit card numbers over the Internet is not a safe procedure, such data is usually transmitted over a fax line. This implies that, at least in the beginning, the transaction between a new user and a vendor requires executing an off-line procedure of several steps before the actual transaction can take place. This situation can be improved if the data is encrypted for security. In fact, some institutions and companies already provide some form of encryption or automatic authentication for security reasons.

However, security is not the only concern. Another issue of major interest is privacy. Frequently, people are willing to exchange information as long as it does not become public. The reasons are many but the most common one is to protect oneself against misuse of private information by third parties. Thus, privacy is another issue which affects the deployment of the Web and which has not been properly addressed yet.

Two other very important issues are copyright and patent rights. It is far from clear how the wide spread of data on the Web affects copyright and patent laws in the various countries. This is important because it affects the business of building up and deploying large digital libraries. For instance, is a site which supervises all the information it posts acting as a publisher? And if so, is it responsible for a misuse of the information it posts (even if it is not the source)?

Additionally, other practical issues of interest include scanning, optical character recognition (OCR), and cross-language retrieval (in which the query is in one language but the documents retrieved are in another language). In this book, however, we do not cover practical issues in detail because it is not our main focus. The reader interested in details of practical issues is referred to the interesting book by Lesk [lesk97].

next up previous
Next: 4. The Retrieval Process Up: 1. Introduction Previous: 2. Basic Concepts

Modern Information Retrieval © Addison-Wesley-Longman Publishing co.
1999 Ricardo Baeza-Yates, Berthier Ribeiro-Neto