Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Knowing what's possible still matters

One of the promises of a search engine is that it would make the information landscape flat.  That is, you could do your search and you wouldn't need to know all of the fiddly little details about what databases are available and what each of them has in stock.

It hasn't quite worked out that way.  I content that while Google has done a great job of flattening, it hasn't--and cannot -- remove the need to know what kinds of data is possible.  

My friend Eisar had a fantastic G+ post that illustrates this point perfectly.  In his post he pointed out the wonders of SFGenealogy.com, a site that collects lots of historical  and archival materials about San Francisco and the Bay Area.  

As his example, he pointed to their recent posting of telephone directories from San Francisco. They started with the directory from 1850 by Charles B. Kimball.  Who knew that telephone directories had authors?  Or that they used to have a preface.  The 1850 preface begins "It is not to be expected, in a city like this, where whole Streets are built up in a week and whole Squares set up in an hour--where the floating population numbers thousands and a large portion of the fixed population lives in tents and places that cannot be described with any accuracy..." 

The phone books (mostly the equivalent of Yellow Pages) have intriguing history built into them.  In the 1907 edition, one year after the great San Francisco earthquake, many of the phone numbers are listed as "Temporary."  No kidding.  

They also have pages that list social clubs (such as the "Bunker Hill Association" to "inculcate a feeling of patriotism and commemorate the anniversary of the ever eventful Battle of Bunker Hill, June 17th..."), street crossings and associated building numbers, and of course, listings of ordinary people and their occupations. 

Some of these are abbreviated in intriguing ways.  "Stenog" for "stenographer" or "tmstr" for "teamster," etc.  Some of the abbreviations are beyond my understanding.  What is as "lab" or a "tmatr"?  "Lab" probably isn't a "lab assistant" so I'm guessing it's laborer.  But I haven't found the master index yet, so I'm not really sure.  

What this means for search is that .... 
1. you still need to know that such a directory exists, and exists online in a way that you can find it

2.  once you find it, you need to know that some of the words you'd expect to find (e.g., "teamster") are actually written in a way that spelling-correction can't repair

3  sometimes terms are used in ways that you'd never expect--"gutta percha" is a kind of rubber (so if you're researching rubber vendors, you need to know terms like that)

4. concepts exist that you need to discover--"electric baths" or "Russian baths" or "French range" or that a "hand grenade" used to be a kind of fire extinguisher... 

And... it's useful to know a bit about how to search.  For instance, you can use site: to restrict your search to a specific year.  
Example:  [ site:www.sfgenealogy.com/sanfranciscodirectory/1885/ grenade ] will find the "hand grenade" fire extinguisher makers in the city.  

If you'll notice, they've nicely organized their documents so you can get to a specific page in the directory.  Look at the URL for the first hit: http://www.sfgenealogy.com/sanfranciscodirectory/1885/1885_537.pdf
The number after the underscore character is the page number.  Hence, this is the directory from 1885, page 537.  

I'll give them kudos for their scanning as well.  It's beautifully done (although I WOULD like a simple way to get to the full-text, rather than having to pull it from the PDF).  

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