Forget the iPad – let’s talk about the Memex!


Illustration of the Memex, 1945

As WWII drew to a close in 1945, Dr. Vannevar Bush published his incredibly influential article As We May Think, addressing a major problem that scientists were facing (and still face): storing and accessing the massive reams of scientific and technical information that is growing daily. As his paper was published before the advent of modern computers, Dr. Bush’s imagined solution to this problem had nothing to do with digital data storage; instead, he imagined reducing millions of volumes of print information down onto microform, so that an entire library of information could be stored in a simple writing desk. This desk, which Dr. Bush dubbed the “Memex,” would project microform slides for readers to browse on the desktop.

As much as we might want to laugh over the idea of a microform library in every desk, it’s the functional features of the Memex that still apply to the way we search digital information today. First, the Memex would allow users to link pages of related volumes, ultimately creating “trails” of aggregated content relevant to their own personal projects. Second, users would also be able to scribble their own longhand notes onto their own pages of text and store them via electrophotography.

The idea of linking related information from multiple sources is really the same idea that influenced the pioneers of the Internet. We now have the ability to create personalized trails of information all over the web, via social software like wikis (such as Intellogist) or social bookmarking, for example. Dr. Bush imagined this capability would help us manage the information overload in our professional lives, even for patent searchers; he envisioned a world where “the patent attorney has on call the millions of issued patents, with familiar trails to every point of his client’s interest.”

Although this vision has perhaps not quite become reality, today’s patent searchers do have a number of features to help us create and store project portfolios online. These range from the simple expedient of stored results lists to more fancy implementations that allow us to annotate results and create entire project portfolios. For example, take the way Thomson Innovation approaches project storage: it allows users to collect related search histories, results lists, alerts, charts, etc.  into personal folders, so that various objects related to a project can be stored together. (In fact, the system stores “file references” to those objects, but it still provides a way to see everything at once).

Thomson Innovation Saved Work Space

The Thomson Innovation Saved Workspace. (Note: Screen capture taken from Professional subscription level; Analyst subscription offers Text Clustering and ThemeScape folders.)

The other key feature of the Memex, the ability to add your own longhand notes right on top of a page of information and store it in your personal files, is still imperfectly supported by our current web browsers. The best we can do today in commercial patent search systems is append our own typed notes to patent records, and overlay our own highlighting onto electronic patent text. For example, both of these features are supported by PatBase, and the added notes and highlighting schemes can be exported.  As another example, Questel’s Patent Examiner product supports user annotations, and even allows users to create their own metadata fields to add tags or rankings to the patent documents (this user-generated content is also exportable). In my opinion, none of these methods can really approximate the user experience of jotting a few quick notes right onto the computer screen – you can’t draw a big red arrow in a text box!

Another solution is one provided by Zotero, a Firefox browser extension which lets users take “snapshots” of electronic documents and save them to a local directory. Once this has been done, users can apply their own highlighting to the page text, and even append “sticky notes” to the page itself. Unfortunately, in my experience, Zotero is not totally optimal for working with patent data.

Due to space limitations I haven’t put together a comprehensive list of search systems that allow users to associate work objects and/or annotate documents, but this is not intended as a slight on your favorite search system! Do you find yourself frequently needing these features when patent searching, and if so, which tools do you use?

Patent Searches from Landon IP

This post was contributed by Intellogist team member Kristin Whitman.


One Response

  1. I might be old fashioned, but since I grew up taking notes on paper in class I still prefer writing things out. The act of writing helps me cognitively in some way as well.

    Using a tablet computer like the iPad might give me the same sensation if I used a stylus, but I haven’t had a chance to try one out yet.

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