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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