Category Archives: Libraries

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.)

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Yet another study shows that “digital natives” suck at searching

I’ve blogged before about studies showing that so-called “digital natives” lack basic information literacy skills and have great difficulty doing academic research and finding and evaluating sources.  (My two posts on Project Information Literacy studies are here and here.)

This Inside Higher Ed article reported today on the results of new studies by the ERIAL (Ethnographic Research in Illinois Academic Libraries) Project. Here’s an excerpt, but you should read the whole thing:

“The majority of students — of all levels — exhibited significant difficulties that ranged across nearly every aspect of the search process,” according to researchers there. They tended to overuse Google and misuse scholarly databases. They preferred simple database searches to other methods of discovery, but generally exhibited “a lack of understanding of search logic” that often foiled their attempts to find good sources….

The most alarming finding in the ERIAL studies was perhaps the most predictable: when it comes to finding and evaluating sources in the Internet age, students are downright lousy….

The prevalence of Google in student research is well-documented, but the Illinois researchers found something they did not expect: students were not very good at using Google. They were basically clueless about the logic underlying how the search engine organizes and displays its results. Consequently, the students did not know how to build a search that would return good sources. (For instance, limiting a search to news articles, or querying specific databases such as Google Book Search or Google Scholar.)

Duke and Asher said they were surprised by “the extent to which students appeared to lack even some of the most basic information literacy skills that we assumed they would have mastered in high school.” Even students who were high achievers in high school suffered from these deficiencies…

In other words: Today’s college students might have grown up with the language of the information age, but they do not necessarily know the grammar.

“I think it really exploded this myth of the ‘digital native,’ ” Asher said. “Just because you’ve grown up searching things in Google doesn’t mean you know how to use Google as a good research tool.”

Even when students turned to more scholarly resources, that did not necessarily solve the problem. Many seemed confused about where in the constellation of library databases they should turn to locate sources for their particular research topic: Half wound up using databases a librarian “would most likely never recommend for their topic.”…

Years of conditioning on Google had not endowed the Illinois Wesleyan students with any searching savvy to speak of, but rather had instilled them with a stunted understanding of how to finely tune a search in order to home in on usable sources, concluded the ERIAL researchers.

Regardless of the advanced-search capabilities of the database they were querying, “Students generally treated all search boxes as the equivalent of a Google search box, and searched ‘Google-style,’ using the ‘any word anywhere’ keyword as a default,” they wrote. Out of the 30 students Duke and Asher observed doing research, 27 failed to narrow their search criteria at all when doing so would have turned up more helpful returns.

Unsurprisingly, students using this method got either too many search results or too few. Frequently, students would be so discouraged they would change their research topic to something more amenable to a simple search….

Duke and Asher noted: “Students showed an almost complete lack of interest in seeking assistance from librarians during the search process.” Of all the students they observed — many of whom struggled to find good sources, to the point of despair — not one asked a librarian for help.

In a separate study of students…, other ERIAL researchers deduced several possible reasons for this. The most basic was that students were just as unaware of the extent of their own information illiteracy as everyone else.

How are students supposed to acquire these important digital and information literacy skills if they aren’t being taught in schools, many parents and teachers lack these skills themselves, and the librarians who have the skills are ignored or fired as libraries close in record numbers?

The David Foster Wallace archive

Today the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin announced that the literary archive of David Foster Wallace they acquired after his death is now open to researchers. The archive includes Wallace’s papers, manuscripts, correspondence, teaching materials, and the extensively annotated books from his library.

Here’s a photograph of the inside cover of Wallace’s annotated copy of Don DeLillo’s Players:

The Harry Ransom Center blog has a series of interesting posts about the Wallace archive:

Here are links to more information about the archive:

The Harry Ransom Center is a humanities research library and museum with many extraordinary collections, including exceptional literary archives, manuscripts, and rare books, but you do have to go in person to access them. (They also have a Gutenberg Bible and three copies of the Shakespeare First Folio, among other treasures.)

The Seattle Public Library’s annual shutdown

For those of you who live in Seattle, a reminder that the Seattle Public Library system will be closed from Monday, August 30th through Monday, September 6th. This week-long end of summer shutdown has unfortunately become an annual event (see my blog post from last year, “Why shut down the entire Seattle Public Library system for a week?”). All branches will be closed and the library staff of about 650 will be on unpaid furlough. In a change from last year, the SPL website won’t be shut down, so you can access the library catalog (though you can’t put books on hold), the databases and online resources, and digital media, but you are on your own if you run into problems or have questions. See this SPL document for details.

To help close a $67 million gap in Seattle’s 2010 general fund budget, Seattle’s library system had to cut $3 million this year from its $50 million budget. The shutdown will save $650,000, with the rest coming from a reduction in branch hours (as of last February, 15 of the 27 branches are closed on Fridays and Sundays and open only 35 hours a week) and cuts to staff, the book buying budget, the capital budget for major maintenance, etc. It looks like there will be even deeper cuts in 2011, as Seattle is facing a $56 million gap for 2011 and the mayor has asked the library and most other city departments (except police and fire) for cuts of 9.5% to 14.5%, which for the library would be $4.9 to $7.4 million.

The SPL leadership is going to have to make some very tough decisions and face the fact that its budget will not only continue to decline over the next few years but may never again be what it was during Seattle’s boom times.

From 1998 to 2008, Seattle built, replaced, expanded, and renovated libraries throughout the city with the $291 million “Libraries for All” bond measure, passed during Seattle’s dot-com boom. The SPL website boasts:

Ten years later, we have finished the final chapter of Libraries for All. It’s time to pause for a moment and look at what we’ve achieved – four new libraries in communities without library service, the replacement, expansion or renovation of 22 existing branches, and a spectacular new Central Library.

Yes, let’s look at what we’ve achieved– we have 27 new or improved library buildings but we’ve had to cut back on the hours they are open, cut back on their staff, cut back on buying books and materials, and defer maintenance. Building new libraries is sexy, but funding their day-to-day operations is not, and expanding your library system results in significant and permanent increases in all of your costs. Unfortunately, the library system does not have a dedicated funding source, so it has to fight for money from the city’s general fund against higher-priority departments like fire, police, human services, the courts, and transportation, to name a few. In lean times, libraries are the low-hanging fruit.

Seattle may love its libraries, but it takes money to keep them open.

Word lovers rejoice: the Historical Thesaurus will be added to OED Online in December

Last October, I blogged at length about the Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary, which was only available in two massive print volumes priced just under $400 (though discounted at Amazon.com). As I wrote at the time:

Browsing this work feels strangely like time-travel. All the words from Old English to 2003—obsolete and current, including slang and dialect—have been extracted from the Oxford English Dictionary and organized by their meanings and dates of use. This places each word within its historical context, revealing how ideas and meanings emerged and the different ways they’ve been expressed through time….

The result is the world’s largest thesaurus, nearly 4000 pages of small type in two big volumes weighing fifteen pounds, with a slipcase and folding chart of the top levels of the classification system. I like print references because browsing can lead to serendipitous discoveries, but these books can be awkward to use. It’s especially frustrating when looking up a word with multiple meanings, as the index may list dozens of identification numbers, which means lots of page flipping. No, it’s not available online or on CD, though that may eventually change. I’d like to see the powers-that-be at Oxford University Press quickly add the HTOED to the online OED so both works can be used together and fully cross-referenced and searched.

Christian Kay, the editor of the HTOED, read my post and sent me an email noting that there were plans to eventually link the HTOED to the OED Online and make it available to subscribers, but that could be a couple of years away.

The good news is that you’ll only have to wait until the end of this year. John Simpson, the chief editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, has announced that the OED Online will be relaunched in December 2010 with major changes, including an integrated online edition of the HTOED:

It’s now just over ten years since the OED first went online in 2000, and these ten years have seen remarkable changes in the number, style, and functionality of online reference sites. The OED Online was a ground-breaking site when it was first launched online, and it has steadily received very positive responses from users.

Later this year we are taking the opportunity to make some major changes to the OED Online, taking into account readers’ comments and our own sense of how we would like the site to develop.

When the two-volume Historical Thesaurus of the OED was published in October 2009 we were immediately asked whether it could be incorporated into the OED Online. At the time, we were testing the feasibility of this, but now we can confirm that the relaunched OED site will contain an integrated online edition of the Historical Thesaurus. This means, for instance, that a user viewing the entry for halberd (the early modern weapon combining a spear and a battle-axe) can click to reach the related entries langue de boeuf, glaive, budge, poleaxe, ox-tongue, and partisan—to list only those first recorded between 1450 and 1611.

Here are more details from the OED Online relaunch FAQs:

Q. When will the new OED site launch?

A. The OED site will relaunch in December 2010. As well as the new-look website, the regular quarterly update will be published with new words and revisions of entries across the alphabet.

Q. What new content will be added at launch?

A. The most significant new content is the integration of the Historical Thesaurus of the OED (HTOED) into OED Online. This will allow readers to click through from entries to synonyms by date. The new site will also offer publicly-available feature pieces, providing guides to the OED content and regular commentaries on topical issues in the story of the language.

Q. What new functionality will be added at launch?

A. Amongst other things users will be able to search and browse the OED by a wide variety of criteria including subject, region, usage, or language of origin; see detailed information about the major sources of the OED; view search results as a timeline; and be able personalize the resource by saving searches and entries to their own profile.

Q. Will I have to take out a new subscription to access the HTOED?

A. No, it will be fully integrated and therefore accessible as part of your current subscription.

Individuals can subscribe to the OED Online for $295 a year or $29.95 a month. But you may not need an individual subscription, as many public and university libraries subscribe to it, and some (like the Seattle Public Library) offer free online access from home if you have a library card.

For more about the HTOED, see my original post, “Time-traveling through the English language with the Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary.”

Update, 11/30/2010: The new OED website has launched, and it fully integrates the Oxford English Dictionary with the Historical Thesaurus. See my new blog post for more information.

“I’ll blow your mind, show you how to find…”: Lady Gaga virus infects librarians

I still haven’t gotten the Glee “Bad Romance” earworm out of my head, and now here comes the librarian remix of “Poker Face” :

The video was created by Sarah Wachter, who will soon receive her MLIS from the University of Washington Information School. She posted the lyrics on her blog, and here’s an excerpt:

You got a question that is causing you some pain
Typin’ keywords into the search engine again.
Look your naïve searching just ain’t gonna get it done
Cause when it comes to search if it’s not tough it isn’t fun (fun)

Oh, oh, oh, oh, ohhhh, ohh-oh-e-ohh-oh-oh
I’ll blow your mind, show you how to find.
Oh, oh, oh, oh, ohhhh, ohh-oh-e-ohh-oh-oh
I’ll blow your mind, show you how to find.

Can use my
Can use my
Yeah you can use my catalog
(Don’t forget the databases)

Librarians rock.

Search, browse, and share digital images from the Library of Congress

Today the Library of Congress announced the launch of their new and improved Prints and Photographs Online Catalogue (PPOC), making it easier to browse, search, and share LOC’s 1.25 million digital images, including historic photographs, prints and drawings, posters, cartoons, baseball cards, and architectural drawings. Many of the digital images can be downloaded at no charge in different formats (jpegs and tiffs) and resolutions, and the new share/save tool allows you to save images, searches, or collections and post links to them on social networking sites.

The Prints and Photographs Online Catalogue can be found at http://www.loc.gov/pictures and a descriptive list of the digital collections is here. Go browse!

“Books are Weapons in the War of Ideas”: 1942 WWII poster from the U.S. Government Printing Office.