Novice Searching

It is easy to become overconfident as a novice searcher because simply finding an answer to a research question seems to count as a success, but that answer does not confirm that your search was exhaustive and includes the best results out there. However, when challenged with exercises based on more complicated or unfamiliar information needs, I found that my searches were sometimes misguided or incomplete. For example, it seemed like when I lost points on course assignments, it was usually for this reason: I either didn’t really understand how to find the answer or I stopped searching prematurely.

In Suzanne Bell’s Librarian’s Guide to Online Searching (2012), she provides a “Searcher’s Toolkit” in chapters 2 and 3. As I studied chapter 2 on the use of Boolean Logic in searching, which she described as

“the most fundamental concept of all… In fact, this concept is so fundamental that you’ve probably run into it before, possibly several times through grade school, high school, and college. But do you really know what Boolean logic is and how it works? Do you really understand how it will affect your searches?” (p. 19),

I thought, “Finally, a practical use for that semester I spent in Logic class as an undergrad!” Of course, I proceeded to read the chapter thinking of how the application of Boolean logic to my own Searcher’s Toolkit was going to be a simple, yet valuable addition. Indeed, it was; when I implemented it in an assignment to compare databases, I quickly got a nice tight package of results. I found out later from my instructor that I actually didn’t quite understand the “Order of Boolean Operations” (Bell, 2012, p. 23) necessary to successfully use Boolean logic in a database and that the use of parentheses helps a lot, just like in mathematics.

I’m actually still not sure that I always do it correctly, but I think it’ll come with practice. As I continued working in my chosen database, I know I was very bold with my use of Boolean logic in search terms and often probably opted for results with good recall over precision by searching broadly (Bell, 2012). It takes longer to sift through the false positives, but I was more satisfied not to miss relevant results, especially with a database like Ethnic NewsWatch that indexes a lot of newspapers—sometimes very superficially.

Throughout my semester group project (on Health Resources for Latinos), I also found it valuable to use some of Alastair G. Smith’s (2012) Internet search tactics that I wasn’t as familiar with before. The BIBBLE technique proved especially useful toward the end of the project when we realized we needed to find additional resources to complete sections of the LibGuide that were sparse (Smith, 2012). Webpages that had already compiled authoritative resources helped us fill in the gaps and saved us some time. In finding demographic information about the Latino population, we used the CROSSCHECK technique to be sure that we correctly represented Latino culture, especially since none of us are of Latino background (Smith, 2012). For example, before we summarized common Latino health behaviors, we consulted two or three scholarly articles on the topic for consistency, so as not to stereotype or overgeneralize.

We were unsure for quite awhile on how to reconcile the focus and audience of our final project with the use of academic databases. Unfortunately, it took us until we had to write our learning objectives for the final presentation before we had a clear idea of whom we were targeting and how we could arrange the LibGuide. While we were able to come up with scholarly resources all along, it seemed a little backwards, maybe even wasteful, to conduct a large-scale search on a general topic like “Healthcare for Latino Immigrants” and then decide later if it was useful and how we would organize it.

Once we established the sections of the guide, we had to reevaluate where we had holes in our research and search again, which felt a little bit like starting over. Perhaps an outline of the guide earlier in the process might have been more efficient, but I’m not sure we would have had as global of a view or encountered some of the resources that were the most valuable. For example, the plain language focus was a serendipitous find. I don’t think anyone had it in mind as a search term early on, since there weren’t resources from the academic databases specifically about using plain language in health care. It was a topic spawned from the section on improving care that we had to scramble to develop because we missed the idea in the planning stages. We likely would have overlooked it completely had we been asked to come up with an outline of the organization of our LibGuide before we tackled the databases.

Likewise, when we finally focused on our audience as the health care providers serving Latino immigrants, the final searching and organization process accelerated immensely. However, if this had happened earlier in the process, again, we may not have stumbled across some of the resources we gathered with broader searches. Regardless, even though we narrowed down our resources to a reasonable selection, I couldn’t help but wonder if the task would ever really feel complete, especially given the depth of information out there about nearly everything.

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