Browse or Search? – A little experiment

I just saw an announcement for an ancient Celtic Personal Names database, and I have to say that what excited me the most wasn’t the data, but the fact that it had a Browse button.
One of the perennial issues of database/archive design is how to allow users to find data. One ways is Search (just a search box into which you enter keywords), but the other is Browse (a directory list of items organized by different keywords or parameters). Interestingly, users seem to be split into Search camps and Browse, and many of my project mates seem to be Search users.
But I am a strong advocate for Browse for most databases and this is why. With the exception of very common tools like the phone book, Google or the library catalog, I don’t most users can’t intuit someone else’s information architecture. When you have a specialized database (like ancient Celtic names) I think it’s very beneficial that Browse mode exist to give user’s a holistic sense of the information architecture. This is a critical factor if we expect students to start to use “professional” database resources.
So here’s my thought question – do you want just a search form or do you want to browse the table of contents first when figuring out what you can extract from this resource?

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