Searching

I recently took a new job as a consultant for social sciences in the department of Scholarship Technology at Occidental College. Part of the job involves helping faculty and students to incorporate new information technologies to advance their teaching, learning, and research and other part is to help students find the information they need by using library resources. As someone with idiosyncratic (PhD) training in research, I’m giving myself a crash course in librarianship and in the process I’ve become fascinated by the concrete problems and possibilities of curating information and helping students to cultivate research skills.

I’ve been following some innovative librarian blogs [The Ubiquitous Librarian, The Unquiet Librarian, SearchReSearch, and The Undergraduate Science Librarian] these last couple of weeks. They raise provocative questions about how access to digital information shapes reference work. I came across this post today that addresses a common concern college freshman have posed in their responses to their required library instruction sessions: why are databases so hard to use? and why can’t they be more like Google?

Google searching is easy because it poses a “one button” solution to a complex problem — where is the information I need? While Google (and Google Scholar) offers a really extensive range of results, its search features are limited by the logic of the algorithm it uses to find information. And it can’t tell you what information is relevant to a given problem. Its search algorithm doesn’t always account for nuances of time, place, culture, or pre-digital methods of organizing and displaying information.

In the post Knowing What’s Possible Still Matters, Daniel M. Russel argues that effective searching requires knowing something about the universe of possible information you seek. He uses the example of SF Geneology, which archives local San Fransisco data on occupations, addresses and phone numbers, and social clubs from the late 1800s/ early 1900s. He argues that without knowing something about how occupations were named/spelled, how the city was organized, and the idiosyncrasies of early phone book publishing, its not possible to make the most of this archive. Paraphrasing Russel, the conclusions he draws from this example are:

1. A need to know what directories and archives exist

2. The kind of language you’d expect to find within a directory or archive (and what contemporary spelling correction might do to those words)

3. Terms can be used in unexpected ways

4. Concepts from the past may not correspond to their use in the present

Library databases, (apart from the complex infrastructure of journals, databases, and aggregators), are difficult to navigate because students are using them in the midst of articulating their research question — they often don’t know the entire universe of possible information they seek, much less how that information is organized within databases. Both students (and faculty) are used to going to a verifiable source (or portal) to get the kinds of evidence that is valued in their field. As we move from a situation of information scarcity to information overload, our jobs are increasingly geared toward helping people figure out which databases, archives, and directories can be usefully sourced to answer their questions in ways that their audiences will find valid. Creativity, critical, and contextual thinking are inherent in reference work and are skills that I am honing together with the students that seek my help.

I’ve found it useful to ask students these two questions about their research before typing into any search bar:

What relationships interest you within your topic? (i.e. Topic: Food Deserts. Question: Do you want to know the effects of food deserts on a) local economies b) obesity c) diabetes? Or would you rather find out whether a) supermarket business practices b) lack of health education c) redlining cause food deserts?)

Who are your audiences? (i.e. Senior Thesis, Food Deserts. Question: Are you interested in speaking to a) scholars in sociology b) public health advocates c) local business d) people experiencing lack of food options?)

Then we get down to the details of where to find literature and data that can define these concepts and their relationships with the types of sources that their audiences will find valid and compelling. This is no small task given the wealth of information out there, but in order to dig deeper students first need to think clearly about their research question and audience(s), and for that, there is no one button solution.