Imagine going, money in hand, to a storefront that gives no clue as to it’s merchandise. Will this store sell shoes, food, antiques, or pets? Lined up next this blank storefront are about 50 others, each with a more or less obtuse name, and each with a microphone protruding from it’s door, ready to receive you requests. What would you do?
This is what students face when they first delve into online searching. From long familiarity, most students have a pretty good idea that they’re searching the author’s text of web sites when they choose to request information from Google. Some might even know that authors can supply metadata, but many do not. And most are familiar with the result list as it is presented, and what they can expect to see when they click into a result.
But what about library databases? Some allow full-text searching, some only include citation, abstract, and controlled vocabulary. As the librarian for languages and literature, my primary tool is the MLA International Bibliography (Chadwyck Healey), and this database doesn’t even include an abstract, and the controlled vocabulary is not very evenly applied. (What I would give for MeSH-like terms!) But my students also need to know how to manipulate catalogs and several other databases, including JSTOR, which replaces MLA’s subjects with fully searchable full text. There is almost nothing similar about searching these two databases because everything inside the storefront is fundamentally different. The words you choose, the care with which you construct searches, the results you get… everything changes.
So I’ve begun teaching databases backwards. I start with a record and get the students to understand what’s there and what’s being searched. Then we move back to the result lists and figure out how to leverage a “messy” keyword search by analyzing the results, quickly opening anything that looks remotely relevant, and gleaning search terms that way. Then and only then do we move back to the search interface and I’ve found it takes very little time for the students to understand what’s going on now that they know what they’re searching and what they can conceivably expect to see when they click “Go.”
My favorite question from a student came part way through one of these backwards searching experiences. “Can I use these same ideas in ProQuest?” I answered that she could use exactly this technique to learn at least the basics of any of our databases. But I knew she still had more to ask… “Can I use these same ideas in Google?” She asked. Yes — yes you can.
I need to plant that kid in all my classes.
[Update: Thanks to Mark for pointing out that as I've laid this scheme out here, it works best in class situations. But with a little tweaking it also works in "real life" when you confront a new database. See the comments section beginning here for that exchange.]