Reflection on the Principle of Least Effort

The Principle of Least Effort is, in a nutshell, lazy researching.

In the assigned reading, Mann wished to establish the reality of PLE. He states “most researchers will tend to choose easily available information sources, even when they are objectively of low quality, and further, will tend to be satisfied with whatever can be found easily in preference to pursuing higher-quality sources whose use would require a greater expenditure of effort” (p. 91).

What is necessarily wrong with this? That’s what librarians are for anyway, to look up anything that someone asks of them. Or perhaps this is a lesson in disguise to MLIS students; a guilt trip to not be lazy researchers.

Common examples of superbly-lazy researchers:

  • Referencing of materials rather than quoting from them
  • Reliance on footnote chasing
  • Neglect of index usage

For a typical PLE-type person, if a search mechanism only has a limited number of sources for researcher inquiries, then all the other sources not included in that mechanism are not going to be read. Let’s tell these folks to put in a little more effort! Not working well though, eh? We’ll need to give them a little assistance. Libraries must invest in a system that will search as many quality materials as possible. For instance, University of Alabama library pays access fees to multiple journal conglomerates for quality materials. Since I, as a student at UA, have the way paved to quality materials by these payment and login blocks taken away, I have read and used quality materials for my research. Thus more quality research, and thus more accolades to UA by association.

In order to provide a quality system, Mann says we must study the behaviors of our users. This same strategy is covered in Chapter 2 of Svenonius’ book. Multiple approaches to a bibliographic (or lookup) system are discussed based on a user’s need, with objectives to identify the desired item, select it from the choices given in a search, obtain the item, then navigate a database to find related items. The bibliographic system is argued on points throughout the chapter, but boils down to needing two items to get to the goal: the users’ information-seeking behavior, and the description code of the library material (bibliographic description). Special uses for bibliographic systems are the ability to collocate – to sort by relevance. A card catalog certainly could not do this, but computer searches can not only find materials with keywords, or authors, or titles, but to remove items that are not relevant to the search.

Several cases were listed favoring a less than full-featured system due to user abilities. Svenonius writes that “a number of experimental students have shown that often users neither need, nor are capable of exploiting, the power of a highly organized database” (p. 27). The system needs to have advanced search options though, to assist the user in finding their desired item. Bibliographic systems on the research side, as well as in the private consumer side are constantly advancing and changing search criteria to enter, and will one day hit the sweet spot.

In The Invisible Substrate of Information Science, Bates claims that librarian expertise is being ignored while millions of dollars and hours are being poured into research whose outcomes librarians have known for decades. “Most people outside our field do not realize that there is a content to the study of form and organization,” said Bates (p. 1045). The actual information content is not what librarians need to be talented in, but to be able to find information on any given subject. Hence the need for a better bibliographic system – to not only assist the user, but to assist the librarian to assist the user.