Skip to content

Desperately Seeking Search Boxes

We’ve been planning to do some usability studies on our web site this year since it’s been a couple of years since our current site was implemented, and it’s time to check and see if the things that made sense to students a few years ago still make sense to them now. So I was interested to have several interactions with students over the course of the last week or so which indicated that students really are interacting with the site differently now. In short, they’re looking for anything that might look like a search box, and they’re using any and all search boxes in same way. More than at any previous time, I’m noticing that my students expect every single search box to be their point of entry into all library resources. At the same time, when they search through collections of collections, they’re highly frustrated. So what gives? (And I really mean that as a serious question. I simply cannot resolve these two frustrations in my head.)

But leaving that conundrum aside for the moment, here’s what I’ve noticed about the “any search box is the same search box and searches everything” mentality.

First, there was a student last week who was searching our catalog for “information on her topic” when what she clearly needed were newspaper articles, and she knew that. But, you see, we had a search box sitting at the top of our “Find” page, so that’s what she used. It’s quite logical, really. If I didn’t know what “The Bridge” is, the difference between a catalog and a database, or if I just didn’t bother to read the labels, that’s what I’d do too.

Later, another student who knew the difference between catalogs and databases came up because she wasn’t getting any results when she searched our article databases. Well… it turned out she was using the “search for a particular database from this long list of databases” box as if it were, you guessed it, a “search within these databases” search box. And it’s quite logical. That box simply says “search.”

Well, today was the kicker. I was teaching a class, and I got the whole class up into the reference room to actually use the Encyclopedia Britannica and to figure out what other subject encyclopedias might be useful as entries into their topics. I’d just shown them how to navigate Britannica’s index, and then showed them a custom search form I’d made so that they could find subject encyclopeidas to browse. Got that? I’d shown them Britannica. Ok. Well, one student clicked from the course guide I’d made into the catalog record for Britannica, and then was trying to use the search box there to search Britannica for his topic. I guess he figured that would be a much more efficient way than the way I’d just demonstrated. And he’s right… but that’s simply not possible from within our catalogs.

My conclusion? Somehow, every search box is a Google box. Every search box is presumed to query everything. And yet, when search boxes do query everything, the students are frustrated to the point of paralysis with the results they get. So basically, if we are to fix this problem, we need federated search that guides students so expertly through result lists and items and collections that they can actually find what they want in the mess that is “all available information.” Oh, and all content must be digitized. This is (currently) impossible. Which brings me back to my conundrum… what do we do now? with today’s library technology? Or is it just a case of needing to label our search boxes better? …. I’ve got no answers.

Published inLibraries and LibrariansSearch and Discovery


  1. Anonymous Anonymous

    Heya! I’ve been driven out of my anonymous-reader niche by this post. Partly, I’m sure, because those were my students who tried to use a search box as a google box and were then flummoxed and overwhelmed.

    I think you’ve hit the nail on the head with this post, Iris. This generation of students is comfortable with “plugging in” searches. But they don’t have a sense of the complexity/density of the search fields.

    In some ways, then, online libraries/archives, while accessible and available in ways that were unimaginable before, don’t give our students the experience of categories or subsets in the same way. Hmmmm. Lots of food for thought in your post! Thank you!


  2. Rudy Rudy

    Iris, thank you for this post! We have had an ongoing argument about placing a catalog search box on the front page, with me as a strong advocate. You’ve just changed my mind.

    If today’s student wants the google box, but the search won’t work like google, then I suspect it is irresponsible of us to give them a single box. Of course, not giving them a search box doesn’t mean they’ll read the instructions to figure out who to use the tools, but it may be a step in the right direction.

    And a different perspective? We (academic librarians) have got to work harder and more emphatically on getting Information Literacy/ library search skills into the K-12 curriculum! Students think it’s all about google because they’ve had twelve years of being taught that — we only have 4 to make a dent in that!

  3. Mark Mark

    Hey Iris,

    Will try and spit my thoughts out semi-coherently but it’s early, little coffee so far, and I’m supposed to be prepping to head to ASIS&T today.

    First (small) comment: In every use of “logical” you use it more in a “that’s what most anyone would do way.” And in that use, I pretty much agree with you. But there is (in my opinion) nothing at all logical about using a general search box when one knows that they need newspaper articles. That is either uninformed, uneducated (in one of a few senses), and/or lazy. Do these people shop at only one store for all their needs?

    As you know, I think our tools have a long way to go, just as does general search. But this quest for the holy grail of “one search box to rule them all” is completely ill conceived. It will not ever work well. Sure. It will work somewhat. Some folks claim Google works. And it does in limited arenas and in limited ways.

    But unless we standardize description, format of description, and classification/categorization across all the kinds of resources and resource providers that we do or may deal with then the Grail of efficient and effective metasearch is a madman’s dream. And that standardization is not going to (fully) happen.

    Just recently we had a new web interface, metasearch tools, and other things go live on our library website here at UIUC. I have yet to find a decent use for any of them! I believe that the folks who have coded and implemented them are brilliant and mean well. And I realize that they may be “useful” to many of our students. “Useful” in the way that searching for newspaper articles in a metasearch interface is.

    I have yet to figure out any of the real issues driving these trends, other than Google’s interface. But the issues are much larger than that. They involve a real dislike of learning (in the general sense, not schooling or higher ed senses), an agreement amongst many educators that we do not need to (or perhaps cannot morally) require learning. But it is clearly not that simple.

    The “funniest” part of all this is that if we really do want to attempt to get as close to this Grail as we can and not require people to actually think about their world in more than a cursory way then we will require a large class of highly educated and practically experienced people who will divide the world up for them and classify and describe things so that “the system” can allow the others to transparently view the world. Far too many dystopian literary and movie references could be made here. I want no part of that world!

    I do want to describe and classify resources and implement systems that allow users to find the things they are interested in. But I also want users who are interested enough in that world to realize that to be fully human one must classify, categorize, divide, relate, etc. and that there are ways of doing so; all of which involve decisions, choices, privileging one description over another, and the exercise of power.

    I don’t mean to require a post-grad degree or anything of the sort. These are, IMHO, basic educational issues and citizens and users ought to be free to decide for themselves to what level they need to know these things (after a certain basic point; kids have no choice about learning their multiplication tables, do they?). But if you choose to be lazy and use the “global search” box when you know you need newspaper articles then I got nothing for you other than to feed some comments back to the educators, or try and educate you myself. If you then choose to persist in such behavior then I’m not so sure my professional responsibilities require anything of me.

    Sorry for being so depressing this morning, Iris. I’m actually feeling pretty good about things. But this whole, very large, massively intertwined set of issues is eating at me on many levels as one who is a knowledge organizer (you know I hate that term, but info org is no better).

    Our tools certainly need work and that will always be ongoing work, but there are consequences to what we do. And I honestly see few or no benefits from the “one search box” approach and many negative consequences from it.

    Thanks for making me think, my friend. This may well be my most coherent thinking on this so far. Feel free to delete my comment if you want, I saved myself a copy for future reference for myself. :)

    P.S. Hey Rudy, glad to see your response. It wasn’t there when I my wrote comments but Iris always makes me do the word verification thing twice. ;) I know everyone won’t agree with me but, for me, “irresponsible” hits the nail squarely on the head. And prior education at the most basic levels is the answer! As with so many things….

  4. Iris Iris

    Hi Adriana! Welcome. And you bring up an excellent point: what happens when our research experience becomes flattened, losing its categories and subsets? Research meets the postmodern, rhizomatic ethos… and what are the implications?

    Rudy, I’ve always thought the catalog search box should be front and center… but now I’m losing faith in that as well. Or rather, I want think it should be there (but with labeling that makes it perfectly clear what’s being searched) but I’m not sure if that’s, as you say, responsible.

    And Mark, why would I want to delete your comment? There’s a lot of good stuff in there, especially the difficulty of consistent description and the necessity of categorization (though I imagine our experience of categorization will change drastically in the coming years… I just can’t imagine quite how it’ll all shake out).

    I would hesitate to say that these problems are fundamentally about a dislike of learning, though. I think we assume a set of experiences that is absolutely foreign to some of these students. Many of them have never before now been required to do any research beyond Google or what their high school teachers handed them. I know this because that’s what they tell me and because that’s what my youngest sibling experienced. And research is difficult. It’s not something we’re born knowing how to do. It’s like they’re hearing a new language and don’t even know where the word breaks are in spoken speech. My question is, how to get them from this point to the point of sophisticated navigation of sources in as little time as possible.

    Anyway, thanks for the comments, all. They’ve given me even more to think about.

  5. […] been able to get rid of the box entirely. “Oh those kids,” we thought. “Desperately seeking search boxes […]

Comments are closed.