Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Searching and Finding

There's a saying in the library world that librarians like to search, while users like to find. And it's true, to some extent. There is a pleasure in designing and executing a really good search. Kind of like the pleasure of a well executed play in a sport -- you think, "Yes! Perfect!" And librarians do love to teach subject headings, boolean logic, and similar search techniques. But, as in sports, the perfect hit isn't all the game is about. You have to score, too, and for searching that means finding.

Do I execute perfect searches when I find things for myself? (Me, the professional librarian.) No. I do good searches, and use techniques learned in searching to find what I need.

Here are some things that I've learning as a professional searcher, and I hope, a professional finder.
  1. Start general. It's easier to narrow a search if you get too much, than to broaden it if you got too specific. Looking at the results for a broad search can also give you ideas of extra search words to use, ones to avoid, and if you might be better off searching elsewhere.
  2. Learn to skim. I've found more answers by skimming through a general search than by any other method. I don't blink at the idea of skimming 10 pages of results. When you are searching, you use keywords, but in skimming you are looking for key concepts, even if they use different words. There are also patterns; an article title looks different than a book title, and a scholarly title looks different than a popular one. It's a learned skill, and one you have to practice.
  3. Searching is iterative. Use what you observe in your search results to make the next search better. Also, if there are Related Results (by whatever name), have look. On the web, I find related results in the comments on blogs and other social sites. (Finding isn't iterative, by the way; when you've found it, you're done.)
  4. There is more than one place to search. Google isn't the answer to everything, but neither is AGRICOLA. Try to choose a resource that is more likely to give you want you want (searching the library catalog for articles isn't going to help that much, though you might find some government documents on the web that look like articles.)
  5. That said, if you have a choice between two likely resources, you are likely to have better luck with the one you are familiar with. I am more likely to choose a database, for instance, from one of our major vendors, because I know how the search interface works. I don't want to waste time figuring out how to do a phrase search.
  6. The corollary to the last one is: get familiar with the resources that you might need.
    And do it when you don't have a deadline looming. This is a great reason to start your research early. You can try out your searches in resources you don't know much about, and if you don't find something, it's not a crisis. And don't think of this as "wasted time". You are learning, and next time (when you might be in a hurry), you will be better equipped.
The inspiration for this post was a question about a web service I don't use much. I don't know much about the service, but I do know help files. I was able to find exactly what was needed in two searches, because I know that help files are constructed using the words that programmers and technicians think users use. I've written help sheets, and experts don't think the same way as novices, they don't use the same language, and, even when they know that, they don't always get it right. So there's a funny disconnect sometimes in help files, and, once you've searched enough of them, you start to learn something about how things might be worded. That, combined with a combination of a general initial search and skimming the results, gave me the answer on my second try.

This is part of metacognition, thinking about your thinking (or in this case searching), and it is a vital part of lifelong learning. If something doesn't work, learn why, because it will save you tons of time in the long run.

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Wednesday, October 21, 2009

More outages

The Library Catalog system will be down for an upgrade, this Friday, Oct 23, 2009, from 5pm to 8pm. (The library itself is closed for that time, as we usually are Friday evening.) For off campus users this will affect using the library catalog, CONSULS, including e-reserves, and logging into the databases from off campus.

If you have research that you can't put off, I would suggest working in Google Scholar to find likely prospects and using the library preferences and the Journal Locator to see if we ought to have the article you want. You won't be able to get into anything until 8pm, but you can save your citations until then. (This is a good strategy for anytime that you can't get into our databases, whether it's because of a network issue, system down time, or account problems.)

The Journal Locator will be down on Saturday, Oct. 24, 2009, from 2am-8am (updated). You will be able to search the databases, but not use the Find Article @ SCSU. I would suggest saving the citations you are interested in (either by email, in database folders for the databases you can set personal accounts for, like EBSCO and ScienceDirect, or in an outside citation manager like EndNote Web) and then checking them once the system is back up.

Speaking of Journal Locator, we have having issues with one component listed, EJS (EBSCO Journal Service). It is currently showing up for more journals and years than we actually own. If you see it come up and you click through and get a No Access message, it's probably that we really don't have that journal/year. The results should be getting better as the next 2 weeks go on, as Periodicals is manually updating the EJS records, all 22,000 of them. Sorry for the confusion and the frustration.

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