Category Archives: Intellectual curiosity

Let’s talk about search

So my last post, “Yet another study shows that ‘digital natives’ suck at searching,” seems to have struck a nerve– it’s received over 5000 hits (thanks to links from BoingBoing and Fark, as well as Twitter and Facebook), and I’ve been reading  the wide range of comments that have sprung up in various places (including my blog, BoingBoing, and the original article at Inside Higher Ed).

I think what many people (especially students) don’t understand is that search is both a tool and a process, requiring different skills, knowledge, and experience. You can learn just enough to get by or really master it with a little curiosity, persistence, time, and practice. There are many ways to do this, and you don’t need a formal class– you can teach yourself (as I did).  There are lots of online resources to help you, including tutorials and how-to guides on university and library websites and specific search engine help pages. (And don’t forget about librarians, a seriously underused resource.) There are links to some resources in my posts and my blogroll and I’ll add more soon.

I do believe it’s important for students to be taught (and regularly practice)– at school, in libraries, and at home– the essentials of digital and information literacy and critical thinking, starting at a young age  and continuing throughout their education. These are important life skills which are being sadly neglected.

Yes, it’s a truth universally acknowledged that most students are lazy and want to get quick and “good enough” results. But the problem is that they don’t know what they don’t know. (As the ERIAL researchers noted, “students were just as unaware of the extent of their own information illiteracy as everyone else.”) They have no idea that there’s a world of information out there that you can’t find through a Google search. Most of it has never been digitized and probably never will be (for lack of funding and copyright concerns, among other reasons). Some has been digitized but is locked in proprietary databases and the “invisible web.” Most books and articles published in the US after 1922 are still under copyright, so even if they’ve been digitized chances are they aren’t free (unless you borrow them from a library). Even if information has been indexed in Google, you may never find it if you don’t know how to properly search for it.

Google could certainly improve the situation, but it is a company of engineers trying to make search as easy and simple as possible for the vast majority of users, giving them a single “magic box” into which they can type anything and get results, even if they’ve spelled the keywords wrong or don’t really know what they are looking for. Some of the “improvements” they’ve made over time have made it frustrating for advanced users like me, such as ignoring the terms I’ve actually typed and substituting what they assume I’m looking for, or filtering my results based on my past search history. And if you want more advanced search options, Google doesn’t make it easy to find or learn about them, and their help articles often aren’t helpful at all. Search is not just an engineering problem to be solved– it is both an art and a science, and there is no one-size-fits-all solution. But no matter how good or flawed a tool like Google search is, anyone can learn how to use it well and get far better results.

A number of people have asked for some advice and tips on search, so here you go.

General advice:

  • When using any search engine, database, or website with search functions, take a few moments to read the instructions or help pages to figure out how to use the site to its full advantage.
  • Search engines are constantly evolving, so you should periodically review the instructions to see if you need to make changes in the way you search.
  • Every search engine is different, so what works for one won’t necessarily work for all, and each may produce different results using the same search terms.
  • If there is an “advanced search” option, you should always use it, as it will give you much more control over your searching and the results.
  • Refine your search. Experiment with different keywords and combinations of keywords. Look for clues to other possible keywords, such as related terms, alternate names, and subject-specific terminology. If you don’t get the results you are looking for, keep trying different things.
  • Remember to look beyond just the first few search results.

Some Google-specific tips:

  • Google’s search tips and help articles can be hard to find, but they do have useful information. Here are direct links:
  • Use Google’s advanced search function, which allows you to limit your search  in many different ways and combinations (all these words, this exact wording or phrase, one or more of these words, don’t show pages that have any of these unwanted words, language, file type, search within a site or domain, etc.). There is no longer a link to it on the main search page– it’s now hidden behind the gear icon (search settings) in the upper right corner. Here’s the direct link:  http://www.google.com/advanced_search?hl=en
  • If you’d rather use Google’s main search box instead of the advanced search, the help articles I linked to above have command shortcuts you can use, such as placing quotation marks around exact phrases. Note that Google no longer uses all Boolean operators. (You don’t need AND as it is the default in all searches. You can still use OR. Don’t use NOT, instead place a minus sign (-) directly before any words or terms you want to exclude.)
  • Google has many specialized search functions for images, news, blogs, scholarly papers, books, patents, etc.  Look in the upper left-hand corner, click “more,” then click “even more” for a full list. Here’s the direct link to the list:  http://www.google.com/intl/en/about/products/index.html
  • All the words you put in the query will be used and the order you put them in matters.
  • Search is case insensitive, punctuation is usually ignored, and common words (the, a) are usually ignored.
  • Google automatically searches for common variations of a keyword.

A final note: Improving your search skills is important, but it’s even more important that you think critically and evaluate your search results and sources.  (See some of my previous posts for more about this.)

“As an educator it’s my duty to empower you to think…”

In this entertaining and informative video clip, astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson explains and debunks the 2012 “end of the world” hype for a group of students at the 2010 World Science Festival. He also simply and eloquently explains why it’s important to think critically, evaluate information, and be scientifically literate, and in the process shows just what a great teacher he is. This, for me, is the money quote, which I transcribed from the video:

This is what we’re confronted with in this age of rapid dissemination of information, whether or not it is correct. So, I could just tell you it’s all bunk, but then you wouldn’t be empowered to understand why, other than to quote, “Oh, Dr. Tyson said,” and I never want you to quote me citing my authority as a scientist for your knowing something. If that’s what you have to resort to, I have failed as an educator. As an educator it’s my duty to empower you to think, so that you can go forth and think accurate thoughts about how the world is put together, inoculating you against the charlatans out there who will exploit your ignorance…. Science literacy is not just how much science you’ve memorized. No, it’s how is your brain wired for inquiry, what is the next question you ask when someone wants to sell you something….

Watch the whole thing:

Thanks to the Friendly Atheist for pointing out the video in his blog.

I have treats for you…

* Last night I spoke with Stesha Brandon, the events manager of the University Book Store in Seattle, and she told me that they are getting an Espresso Book Machine in January. (See my post “…an ATM for books” for more about the Espresso Book Machine, including video of it in action.) That makes a total of three EBMs in Washington state (University Book Store, Third Place Books in Lake Forest Park and Village Books in Bellingham), more than any other state. Decisions, decisions…. Which public domain work should I print first?

* Thanks to the LiteratEye blog, I’m having great fun browsing through LibraryThing’s “Legacy Libraries” project, in which members of the “I See Dead People’s Books” group enter the libraries of famous dead people as LibraryThing catalogues. There are nearly 70 completed libraries, including  John Adams, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Benjamin Franklin, Ernest Hemingway, Katharine Hepburn, Thomas Jefferson, Samuel Johnson, T.E. Lawrence, Sylvia Plath, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and George Washington. There are also over 50 libraries in progress, including  Charles Darwin, John Dee, Emily Dickinson, C.S. Lewis, Mary, Queen of Scots, Herman Melville, Adam Smith, Leonardo da Vinci, and William Butler Yeats.

* For those who are total Shakespeare geeks like me, behold the new Shakespeare Quarto Archives, containing digital reproductions and transcriptions of 32 copies of the five earliest editions of Hamlet published before 1642. Here’s a video introduction to the Shakespeare Quarto Archives:

* There are lots of end of the year lists, but I always look forward to those by Craig Silverman on his Regret the Error blog. For your reading pleasure:

Crunks 2009: The Year in Media Errors and Corrections

2009 Plagiarism Round-Up

* And finally:

Oh hai. In teh beginnin Ceiling Cat maded teh skiez An da Urfs, but he did not eated dem.

Ceiling Cat creats teh universes and stuffs

Yes, Virginia, there is a LOLCat Bible. I discovered the LOLCat Bible Translation project through Steve Wiggins (Neal Stephenson’s brother-in-law), a scholar of ancient and modern religions with a blog named Sects and Violence in the Ancient World.

In praise of browsing

For me, an important element of creative research is serendipity, which the OED defines as “making happy and unexpected discoveries by accident.” Browsing is a great way to open yourself to serendipity, but it is unfortunately becoming a lost art in this digital age.

Browsing and searching are different– browsing is about the journey, searching is about the destination. Searching is focused on finding specific information quickly and often leads to tunnel-vision, which can prevent you from recognizing useful sources that don’t match your preconceived ideas and assumptions. Browsing is about slowing down, opening your eyes, feeding your curiosity, and allowing yourself the opportunity to make discoveries.

I believe it’s important to set aside time to browse on a regular basis– not just on the web, but in the physical world as well. Spend time exploring different bookstores (both new and used), visit libraries and museums, and search out unusual places you’ve never visited. Take a different route, walk around neighborhoods you don’t live in, look for hidden treasures.

Whenever you are looking for something in a bookstore or library, always browse the surrounding books and nearby shelves. I can’t tell you the number of times that I found books much better than the one I was looking for by doing this. Sometimes you don’t really know what you need until you find it.

Remind yourself to occasionally browse unfamiliar sections or subjects in bookstores and libraries, rather than only the ones you think will be of interest to you. Bookstores (especially those selling used books) each have their own idiosyncratic system of categorizing, so what you want may be in a section you never visit, and if you change your routine you might stumble across amazing things you aren’t looking for.

Use sources to lead you to other sources. Whenever you are looking at a book or article, browse the bibliographies or lists of references cited, as this will often reveal useful sources you might not have found on your own. When you discover an interesting blog or website, check out the list of links and bookmark those that may be useful to you. Talk to people and ask them for recommendations.

If something arouses your curiosity or inspires you, embrace the creative impulse and and see where it leads. Write stuff down. Let your mind wander.

I hope you’ll all spend some time browsing this holiday weekend. You never know what you might discover….

Book stalking

Thanks to Alma Alexander for pointing out this great blog post by Rands In Repose on book stalking:

Where’s your bookshelf? It’s this awkward moment whenever I first walk into your home. Where is it? Everyone has one. It might not be huge. It might be hidden in a closet, but in decades of meeting new people, I’ve never failed in finding one and when I do I consume it…

The Book Stalking Process

This is my process and this is not a process of judgment, but one of assessment, and it proceeds in three phases:

Phase 1: Where are they?

  • Where does you bookshelf live in your home? Is it in an obvious place or are you hiding it? Why are you hiding your books?
  • Is the bookshelf built around the room or vice versa?
  • Do you have a room specifically for books? Hot.
  • Can I see your bookshelf after you’ve sat me down with a glass of wine? Even better.
  • Did you spend money on your bookshelf or is it an IKEA atrocity? Wait, you built that? Awesome.

Phase 2: How are they arranged?

  • Have you committed to a pure bookshelf? What’s the breakdown between books and non-books? This isn’t where I store books; it’s where I demonstrate that I love books.
  • Is the arrangement chaotic or calm? Is this is a shrine or a utility?
  • Vertical or horizontal stacking? What’s the rule? Is there a rule?
  • Is it full? I read. A lot.
  • Does your book arrangement tell a story? Can I find that story quickly or do I need you to tell it? Do you offer it?
  • Do you use bookends? Are they functional or ornate? What’s their story?

Phase 3: And what do you read?

  • Are these the books I expect based on what I know about you?
  • Do these books represent your entire life or just right now?
  • Can I tell, at a glance, the three most important books?
  • Which books are you… hiding?
  • How do you react when you see me stalking your bookshelf? What’s the first story you’re going to tell?
  • Is there a glaringly obvious book that does not belong? When do I get to ask you about it?

What I’m learning during this stalking is my deal. The intricacies of my assessment aren’t the point. You are decidedly and blissfully not me, which is why I’m standing, wine glass in hand, totally and completely lost in your bookshelf….

I must confess that I am a book stalker. You can tell a lot about people from the books on their shelves.

As I wrote in a previous blog post:

I live my life surrounded by books. My husband and I have thousands of them, old and new, in bookcases covering the walls of nearly every room of our house.

Our books are more than just texts. They are artifacts that express who we are and what’s important to us. They are time capsules that can take us back to a particular memory or moment in time. They are symbols of our relationships– with each other, with friends, and with the authors who inscribed their books to us. They are unique, collaborative works of art, a marriage of ideas, language, typography, illustration, and design.

Why July 2nd is really Independence Day

On July 2, 1776, the American colonies declared their independence from Great Britain when the Continental Congress finally approved (with twelve colonies voting yes and New York abstaining) this resolution:

Resolved, That these United Colonies are, and, of right, ought to be, Free and Independent States; that they are absolved from all allegiance to the British crown, and that all political connexion between them, and the state of Great Britain, is, and ought to be, totally dissolved.

That evening, the Pennsylvania Evening Post printed this notice: “This day the Continental Congress declared the United Colonies Free and Independent States.”

John Adams, in his July 3, 1776 letter to his wife, Abigail, wrote:

The Second Day of July 1776, will be the most memorable Epocha, in the History of America. I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated, by succeeding Generations, as the great anniversary Festival… It ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires, and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more.

So what happened on July 4, 1776? On that date, the Continental Congress approved and formally adopted the final revised draft of the Declaration of Independence. (Jefferson drafted the Declaration of Independence between June 11 and June 28, the document was read to Congress on June 28, and over the next few days it was debated and many changes were made.)

The earliest printed versions of the Declaration of Independence begin: “IN CONGRESS, JULY 4, 1776. A DECLARATION BY THE REPRESENTATIVES OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA.” The first was a broadside printed on July 5th by John Dunlap. On July 6, the Pennyslvania Evening Post was the first newspaper to publish the text of the Declaration. On July 19th, the Congress ordered that the Declaration be “fairly engrossed on parchment, with the title and stile of ‘The unanimous declaration of the thirteen United States of America,’ and that the same, when engrossed, be signed by every member of Congress.” On August 2, this large engrossed vellum copy of the Declaration of Independence, dated at the top July 4, 1776, was signed by many (but not all) of the delegates. This is the copy that resides at the National Archives.

Here are a few additional links for your reading pleasure:

So join me in celebrating both momentous days– July 2nd (the anniversary of American independence) and July 4th (the anniversary of the adoption of the Declaration of Independence).

Update: Want more? https://lisagoldresearch.wordpress.com/2010/07/02/the-second-day-of-july-1776-will-be-the-most-memorable-epocha-in-the-history-of-america/

I’m shocked to discover there’s gambling in this casino…

I recently read the February 2009 Project Information Literacy Progress Report from the Information School at the University of Washington, titled “Finding Context: What Today’s College Students Say about Conducting Research in the Digital Age.”

The goal of the project is to “understand how early adults conceptualize and operationalize research activities for course work and ‘everyday use’ and especially how they resolve issues of credibility, authority, relevance, and currency in the digital age.”

While I admire these goals and am obviously interested in the subject, I wasn’t surprised by the findings, and I found some of the quotes from students unintentionally funny.

The report begins by asking:

What is it like to be a college student in the digital age? In a world teeming with information technology and overflowing with access to data, how do students find the information they need? How do students conduct research for course-related assignments? How do they conduct research for use in their everyday lives? What frustrations and obstacles do they encounter? What strategies have students developed to meet their information needs?

Their conclusion?

So far, we have found that no matter where students are enrolled, no matter what information resources they may have at their disposal, and no matter how much time they have, the abundance of information technology and the proliferation of digital information resources make conducting research uniquely paradoxical: Research seems to be far more difficult to conduct in the digital age than it did in previous times… In general, students reported being challenged, confused, and frustrated by the research process, despite the convenience, relative ease, or ubiquity of the Internet. In our sessions, frustrations included the effects of information overload and being inundated with resources, but more. Participants also reported having particular difficulty traversing a vast and every-changing information landscape. Specifically, participants greatest challenges were related to finding the materials they desired, knew existed, and needed on a “just in time” basis.

Some specific findings:

  • Students treat everyday life research and course-related research differently, and they put a lot more time and effort into the former. “Students reported that searches for everyday life information could last for days, and were driven by curiosity, as students clicked on Google results or Wikipedia citations and unfolded layers of information.”
  • Students “reported almost twice as many frustrations, overall, with conducting course-related research than with everday life research, though the nature or type of participants’ frustrations had underlying similarities.” Everyday life frustrations included: too many results from a Google search and the need to sort through them; knowing the “answer” is online but not being able to find it; figuring out whether a source is credible; knowing that everything is not online; and never can find enough information on the obscure topic being searched. Course-related frustrations included: information overload; too much irrelevant information, can’t locate what is needed from online results; trying to find the “perfect” source; not knowing what to look for, yet still sifting through articles that might fit; trouble finding books needed on library shelves; and conducting research to meet another’s expectations.
  • Students begin their course-related research with Wikipedia. They begin their everyday life research with Google, followed by blogs and Wikipedia.
  • “The majority of the students we interviewed did not start on an assignment–thinking about it, researching, or writing–until two or three days before it was due.”

The study authors note that for students, conducting research “may feel a lot like being an inexperienced sailor heading directly into an oncoming wind, sails wildly flapping, and not being able to maneuver and get to a desired destination.” They believe this is because students are struggling to “find context,” and they go on to describe four types of context students seek: big picture; language, situational, information gathering.

But what do students do to find context? They use Wikipedia, despite its flaws and warnings from their professors. “We found the majority of students ignored the negatives and went to the site anyway. Most students depended on and used Wikipedia for information cited in papers, but just never included Wikipedia entries on their Works Cited page. In our sessions, students also discussed concerns over Wikipedia and accuracy. However, most participants believed that they, themselves, had the ability to discern the credibility of a Wikipedia source, based on their ‘gut level’ interpretation of Wikipedia’s rating system.”

Surely it isn’t a surprise that:

  • Students always procrastinate and are looking for quick and easy answers.
  • Students spend an unlimited amount of time and effort on things that interest them, but do the minimum necessary on academic assignments.
  • Students universally use the two tools that are the most convenient, familiar, and useful to them– Wikipedia and Google– and they will continue to do so regardless of what their professors say.
  • Students don’t know or haven’t been taught how to do research, think critically, find and evaluate sources (online and in the library), and efficiently sift through the overwhelming amount of available information to find what they need.

I wrote in my very first blog post, “Research is like treasure hunting, and to do it well you must be skeptical, curious, discriminating, persistent, and willing to look beneath the surface.” Research also requires time and patience, but it is a skill that can be learned with a little knowledge and practice. However, research is much easier to do when motivated by a love of learning, intellectual curiosity, and passion for your subject, rather than obligation.  Even I don’t like researching subjects I find boring. So while we clearly need to teach students how to do research, we should also be giving them assignments that not only educate them, but also interest and inspire them.

A fascinating post last month in the blog In the Library with the Lead Pipe gave a librarian’s perspective on this, discussing some of the “questionable assignments” given to students by well-meaning faculty members:

Every semester there is at least one assignment that comes across my reference desk that makes me throw my hands up in exasperation (such as: a scavenger hunt that was written before we moved much of our content online or the requirement that the student must have at least one print source, library databases and ebooks do not count)…

We kept getting students who had the same (admirable) weekly assignment: find and read a newspaper article covering the event they were studying that week. The article (or possibly other primary source document) had to have been written during the time of the event and from the perspective of the people involved. We had been doing fine helping them find historical and foreign papers as needed, until they came to the Ottoman Empire. And it didn’t stop there. The class was a survey of world history. They continued to have topics that simply might not have ever been documented by the people involved, unlikely in newspaper article form, certainly not in English, and may not have ever been translated into English if it did manage to get written down and preserved. African events were also particularly difficult…

Scavenger hunt assignments are frustrating for everyone. Looking up trivia is not the same as conducting research and without a meaningful application of the process of using the library anything they learn through the scavenger hunt is less likely to stick…

Often the student, the faculty, or both don’t differentiate between the free web and resources that the library has purchased, but are available electronically…

Librarians are on the front lines of this battle, and both students and faculty would benefit from using them more as a resource.

It looks like I now have lots of subjects for future blog posts…

“Wakefulness of mind”

At the Convention on Modern Liberty, held yesterday in the UK, the keynote speech was given by Philip Pullman, author of the fantastic His Dark Materials trilogy. There is much to like in his speech, which ends: “We are a better people than our government believes we are; we are a better nation.” But the part I liked best was about intellectual curiosity, or “wakefulness of mind”:

Another virtue that a nation needs is intellectual curiousity. Wakefulness of mind, one might put it. A nation with that quality would be aware of itself, conscious of itself and its history, and every separate thread that makes up the tapestry of its culture. It would believe that the highest knowledge of itself had been expressed by its artists, its writers and poets, and it would teach its children how to know and how to understand and love. We have to be taught how to love, how to love their work, believing that this activity would give them, the children, an important part to play in the self-knowledge and the memory of the nation.

A nation where this virtue was strong, would be active and enquiring of mind, quick to perceive and compare and consider. Such a nation would know at once when a government tried to interfere with its freedoms. It would remember how all those freedoms had been gained, because each one would have a story attached to it, and an attack on any of them would feel like a personal affront. That is the value of wakefulness.

My thanks to Cheryl Morgan and Cory Doctorow for their blog posts about the Convention, which led me to Pullman’s speech.

Obama’s “appreciation of the magic of language and his ardent love of reading…”

There’s a fascinating article about Barack Obama’s love of reading and the books that influenced him in today’s New York Times:

Much has been made of Mr. Obama’s eloquence — his ability to use words in his speeches to persuade and uplift and inspire. But his appreciation of the magic of language and his ardent love of reading have not only endowed him with a rare ability to communicate his ideas to millions of Americans while contextualizing complex ideas about race and religion, they have also shaped his sense of who he is and his apprehension of the world….

Mr. Obama tends to take a magpie approach to reading — ruminating upon writers’ ideas and picking and choosing those that flesh out his vision of the world or open promising new avenues of inquiry….

What’s more, Mr. Obama’s love of fiction and poetry — Shakespeare’s plays, Herman Melville’s “Moby-Dick” and Marilynne Robinson‘s “Gilead” are mentioned on his Facebook page, along with the Bible, Lincoln’s collected writings and Emerson’s “Self Reliance” — has not only given him a heightened awareness of language. It has also imbued him with a tragic sense of history and a sense of the ambiguities of the human condition….

This makes me very happy.

Don’t believe everything you read

“The next best thing to knowing something is knowing where to find it.” — Samuel Johnson

I thought this famous Samuel Johnson quote would be an appropriate way to begin my blog. The problem is that Johnson never actually said this, despite the fact that you’ll find this attributed to him on a number of different quotation websites. None of these websites identified the original source of the Johnson quote, so I decided to dig a little deeper. The Apocrypha section of Frank Lynch’s Samuel Johnson Sound Bite Page identifies this quote as a corruption of something Johnson did say, which was recorded by James Boswell in his Life of Johnson. The actual Johnson quote is:  “Knowledge is of two kinds. We know a subject ourselves, or we know where we can find information upon it.” I confirmed this by searching the text of Boswell’s Life of Johnson online.

This illustrates a few important lessons about evaluating sources of information:

  • Don’t believe everything you read, especially on the Internet. Just because the same information appears on multiple websites doesn’t mean it’s accurate. Bad information spreads like a virus.
  • Not all sources of information are equal. Don’t rely on only one source for an important piece of information. You should always try to find multiple sources, as well as different kinds of sources.
  • Use reputable sources and find out where or who the information is coming from. Is the author or source identifiable, knowledgeable, and credible? What are their qualifications or credentials? Are they biased, do they have an ax to grind, or are they selling something? Are sources for the information cited, or does information appear in a vacuum without any way of knowing where it originally came from?

Research is like treasure hunting, and to do it well you must be skeptical, curious, discriminating, persistent, and willing to look beneath the surface.