Information Retrieval and Databases

The Discworld is a world created by Terry Pratchett. It is a giant turtle carrying four giant elephants supporting the Discworld on their backs. On this world, there is magic but it is only practised by wizards at the Unseen University in Ankh-Morpork, the biggest city on the Discworld. At the Unseen University, there is a Library that has a collection of all magic books. Magic books are dangerous especially when gathered together which is why many of the books are locked behind strong doors. However, an accident occurred with one of the most dangerous books and the Librarian was turned into an orangutan. He did not mind, though. It gave him easier access to books on the high shelves.

According to Terry Pratchett in these books, “knowledge=power=energy=matter=mass” and mass warps space. Library-space or l-space for short is what happens when large amounts of books gather. All libraries are connected through l-space. Through l-space, one can read any book that was ever written, will be written at some point, was planned to be written but was not or possibly will be written in the future. L-space is described in the books as an infinite space with bookshelves lining the walls. It is accessed wherever there are large amounts so sometimes users of libraries or bookshops may not even realise that they have entered l-space. Only senior librarians that have been taught by the Librarians of Time and Space can navigate l-space.

You may be wondering why I have spent a whole two paragraphs describing a fictional concept and what it has to do with the title ‘Information Retrieval and Databases’. Well, a database is a collection of documents or files that is ordered into categories. L-space as a continuation of libraries is the ultimate database, don’t you think so? All books and whatever else is collected in libraries is stored in l-space. Information retrieval is process by which information is taken from a database. L-space is accessed through the twists and turns that large numbers of books create when gathered together. Remember, “knowledge=power=energy=matter=mass”. It needs a thoroughly trained librarian to access l-space. It is dangerous for normal people to access because not only may you get lost in time, you may change the normal course of events!

In the real world, though, databases are used to store lots of unrelated information like employee’s personal details. This can be created using a spreadsheet application like Microsoft Excel or Google Sheets. The columns would have headings like ‘Employee’s name’, ‘Employee’s address’, Employee’s telephone number’ etc. The rows would have the data.

When there is a large amount of data, you need an efficient way to retrieve bits of it. There are information retrieval systems that allow you to do that such as MySQL or PHP. These use a specific language that allows you to retrieve data from databases just like retrieving data from l-space requires special training.

Google has the idea of creating the ultimate database. It is also much easier to use than l-space. However, all information ever produced in written form does not yet exist in electronic form. Electronic data has a shorter life-cycle compared to printed forms. In a magical world, all printed books and papers may be preserved in l-space but in the real world, there is no magic. If all information is to be preserved in a format that will allow any and all users to access it, though, it must be as extensive as l-space. But not as hard to navigate.


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