The latest issue (Vol. 127, No. 1, Summer 2014) of the journal Representations (University of California Press) features a special forum on the concept of “search,” with contributions from Lisa Gitelman, Frederic Kaplan, Leah Price, Kent Puckett, Daniel Rosenberg, and Ted Underwood.
Although the journal requires a subscription for access, Ted Underwood has posted a preprint of his article, “Theorizing Research Practices We Forgot to Theorize Twenty Years Ago.”
In discussing the limitations of a full-text search, Underwood explains:
The deeper problem is that by sorting sources in order of relevance to your query, it also tends to filter out all the alternative theses you didn’t bring. Search is a form of data mining, but a strangely focused form that only shows you what you already know to expect. This limitation would be a problem in any domain, but it’s particularly acute in historical research, since other periods don’t always organize their knowledge in ways we find intuitive. Our guesses about search terms may well project contemporary associations and occlude unfamiliar patterns of thought.