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Keywords in and out of context
Van der Veer Martens B., Springer International Publishing, Cham, Switzerland, 2023. 164 pp. Type: Book (303132529X)
Date Reviewed: Feb 9 2024

In a literate society, the use of keywords is such a common everyday activity that we rarely reflect on the origins of their use. It seems so normal and inherent to our lives that using keywords is in our DNA. This is an enlightening short book on keywords and their use. They are not inherent to the human species like bipedal locomotion. They are, rather, a technological development from centuries ago. The book could be described as a cultural anthropology and history of literacy and how keywords became an important factor in this story.

The book is divided into ten chapters that can be divided into two sets. Chapters 1 through 5 comprise the first set. This group of chapters emphasizes anthropological theory and concepts of language and symbols. The second set of chapters (6 through 10) emphasizes the history of written language from the earliest clay tablets to contemporary techniques for storing and retrieving documents.

The first chapter looks at fundamental concepts and uses of keywords. There are four principal tasks that keywords handle: representation, reference, relevance, and retention. They are more than just a collection of letters from an alphabet. They represent a concept element in a larger area of discourse, refer to physical or mental entities, indicate a degree of relevance to related words, and provide a basis for retaining the information in storage. The second chapter is a primer on semiotics--the study of symbols and how symbols relate to the underlying entities. The third chapter reflects on the origins of language in early hominids. The fourth chapter continues the study of languages as they evolved. Chapter 5 examines the special case of religious and ritual language because of the importance of religion and shared beliefs in maintaining societal cohesion.

Chapters 6 and 7 cover the history of written language. In order to preserve knowledge, written language was developed with the earliest surviving examples from 5000 years ago. It is interesting to note that many of the earliest examples of written documents were of rather mundane matters such as business agreements or promissory notes. The growth of governments with laws and courts made it important that laws be proclaimed, recorded, and enforced accurately and consistently. In addition, the accomplishments of rulers were recorded, even in stone, to ensure a legacy of their leadership.

Chapter 8 is really the key chapter in the book. It reveals the importance of indexing information in books. The creation of books (codices) as a replacement for scrolls enabled the creation of subsidiary index documents to enable finding any interesting information in the book. This is very similar to the difference between finding a song on a cassette tape versus finding it on a CD or even on a vinyl record. It is possible to point to a particular page. With movable type and mass-produced books of identical format, indexing became commonplace. With the availability of books came libraries and the need to organize collections for the storage and retrieval of information, that is, library information systems.

Chapters 9 and 10 bring us up to date with discussions of computer-based information databases, search engines, and algorithms. These technologies are used daily by everyone with a computer or a smartphone without even reflecting on the tools. This book describes these technologies briefly--how search engines work, how associated terms and words related to keywords in the searches are uncovered through software, and how and why different search engines produce different results for the same query. How commercial decisions affect search engine performance and results. The book finishes with a brief speculation on the role of artificial intelligence (AI) tools in information retrieval.

This book is primarily targeted for the general reader who is curious about how modern information technology came into being through keywords. A close analogy to the style of this book is the BBC television series Connections with James Burke from the 1990s, which traced the origins of modern scientific and technological developments from the earliest days. It is an interesting and entertaining read.

Reviewer:  Anthony J. Duben Review #: CR147705
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