Thursday, January 07, 2010

Search Words & Searching For Words

In today's Google world, natural language searching is a very common strategy for finding the information we want. Our search words can be a phrase such as "bed and breakfasts in Providence" or discrete words such as "art museum Chicago Seurat" or "Iroquois famous people" and usually we get results. Google provides online hints for basic searching.

Search techniques -- that is, the words you use to find information -- in library catalogs are often very different from natural language or discrete word searching. Library catalogs use effectively more limited key words or common phrase searching as well as library subject headings. Only the words appearing in a library database are indexed (searchable) and these may be much more limited than the universe of words on the Internet generally. Thus one of a librarian's main occupations is supporting library users in conducting searches that yield them results on the library catalog. Too often a student will say "The library has no books on deserts in Africa," having used the words "africa deserts" instead of the more effective Boolean search of "Africa*" and "desert*" -- or failing to select a general book on Africa that provides excellent information in a rich chapter on deserts in Africa.

Search techniques can vary from source to source, and supporting library users in being thoughtful about their search techniques remains important. Reviewing the concept of general topic (larger topic) and specific topic (or subtopic) is also useful, as there is information to be gained by an understanding of the context of a specific topic. Too often we are satisfied to locate a tiny bit or byte of information about something and consider it "done" when a broader understanding can lead to a genuinely deeper engagement.