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Reading databases: slow information interactions beyond the retrieval paradigm

Melanie Feinberg (University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, North Carolina, USA)

Journal of Documentation

ISSN: 0022-0418

Article publication date: 13 March 2017




In this conceptual essay, the purpose of this paper is to argue that the structure of databases and other information systems provides valuable information beyond their content. The author contends that reading databases – as a separate, distinct activity from retrieving and reading the documents that databases contain – is an under-studied form of human-information interaction. Because the act of reading databases encourages awareness, reflection, and control over information systems, the author aligns the author’s proposal with “slow” principles, as exemplified by the slow food movement.


This paper presents an extended argument to demonstrate the value of reading a database. Reading a database involves understanding the relationship between database structure and database content as an interpretation of the world. For example, when a supermarket puts vermicelli in the pasta section but rice vermicelli in the Asian section, the supermarket suggests that rice vermicelli is more “Asian” than “noodle.” To construct the author’s argument, the author uses examples that range from everyday, mundane activities with information systems (such as using maps and automated navigation systems) to scientific and technical work (systematic reviews of medical evidence).


The slow, interpretively focused information interactions of reading databases complement the “fast information” approach of outcome-oriented retrieval. To facilitate database reading activities, research should develop tools that focus user attention on the application of database structure to database contents. Another way of saying this is that research should exploit the interactive possibilities of metadata, either human-created or algorithmically generated.


This paper argues that information studies research focuses too heavily on seeking and retrieval. Seeking and retrieval are just two of the many interactions that constitute our everyday activities with information. Reading databases is an area particularly ripe with design possibilities.



A preliminary version of this paper was given at the Global and Local Knowledge Organization conference held in August, 2015, in Copenhagen.


Feinberg, M. (2017), "Reading databases: slow information interactions beyond the retrieval paradigm", Journal of Documentation, Vol. 73 No. 2, pp. 336-356.



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