Reflection on the Principle of Least Effort

Thomas Mann, author of Guide to Library and Research Methods, delves into the topic of library organization, and how studies have shown that researchers will take the easier route to find resources over a more difficult route that may yield better quality sources. In other words, the researcher will gather the information (s)he needs, and stop when the research needs are fulfilled whether or not the best sources have been found. The researcher will use the easiest and most accessible route/method of research to get what they need because the benefits of this method outweigh spending more time on their research. This phenomenon is called “The Principle of Least Effort”.   Mann mentions several studies where it is shown time and time again that researchers (regardless of profession or experience) will use the least amount of effort to gain the results that they deem will be satisfactory to their needs. These findings then lead to the discussion of why some research routes are easier to use than others. Perhaps the problem lies in the library or institution organization. However, when confronted with this problem, system designers shift the blame to the researchers and library users, saying that they are “lazy”, and therefore cannot do anything because the problem lies outside of the system. However, there are those information scientists that would speak against blaming the researcher.

Marcia J. Bates, argues in her article “The Invisible Substrate of Information Science”, that although there is a surface level “above the water-line” dimension to information science, there is also a more difficult “below the water-line” level of representing the information to those who seek it. She argues that presenting and organizing information is different that knowing the information. Bates shows that it is the distinct responsibility of the information scientists to present information in a precise, structured way in order for the user to gain the knowledge (s)he seeks. Moreover, the way information is structured must adapt to the changes in technology and the types of information being researched. Library scholar Elaine Svenonius shows in The Intellectual Foundation of Information Organization that the way we categorize information, specifically bibliographies, has always been a fluid, ever changing system to fit into the culture of our time. If the way bibliographies are set up have been changed to fit the mold of modern day society, so too should the framework of information be easily adaptable to suit the researchers’ needs.

Mann’s “The Principle of Least Effort” shows that there is some disconnect between researcher and the information they are trying to gather. Mann doesn’t provide a really in depth way of solving this problem, but he does bring to light the need for a better system of information retrieval for future researchers. It seems as though even the designers of the system are using the Principle of Least Effort by pushing the blame onto the user. Mann, however, states that “shifting the blame for a problem is not at all the same thing as providing a solution.”   It seems that a viable solution for library and information systems would be to reevaluate the way information is organized, and provide better accessibility for higher quality sources. Library and Information Sciences must always be a well-oiled machine with a user-based focus. To use the metaphor Mann so eloquently provides, if the ball in a pinball machine consistently rolls down and to the left, check the slope of the board, not the ability of the player.