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Why Advanced Search?

I often teach Boolean searching to classes of students.

There, I’ve said it. And I’ve decided not to be ashamed of that practice even though most of the literature I’ve read since library school has steadfastly lambasted the practice as outdated, unnecessary, and self-indulgent.

Of course, I don’t teach it in every class, but sometimes there’s just no substitute for a good advanced search, and students of all class years may end up hearing about how they can use OR to combine conceptual synonyms and how they can use AND to combine those clusters of conceptual synonyms, and just look at how much better ProQuest behaves now that it understands what you mean by “gender” and “higher education” and “achievement,” and that you’d really like articles that address all three concepts, please. Freshmen eat it up like candy, and when I do my mini-surveys at the end of class (name one thing you learned that will be most useful to you — name one thing that still confuses you), the “how to use AND and OR” portion of class is a consistent hit. Sophomores through seniors really can’t function well in the MLA International Bibliography without it. And just yesterday, I learned one reason why they may latch on to Boolean searching as their ticket to research nirvana.

I was talking with a professor while her students were busily putting into practice the things I’d just taught them about searching the MLA International Bibliography, and she mentioned that she hasn’t ever really needed to know this type of advanced searching because she gets pretty good result lists and can scan them quickly to pick out what she needs. “I rely a lot on people’s names, though,” she mused. And that’s when I realized that advanced search techniques are important to students because they provide at least a partial compensation for the students’ lack of disciplinary context.

So, armed with the knowledge that a) my students like it, and b) they need it because they don’t know the names of the major players in their research areas, I’m going to happily continue teaching Boolean searching (when appropriate) until it seems like neither of those criteria apply any more.

Published inIn My ClassroomTeaching and Learning


  1. Agreed! I always taught advanced when doing instruction. Because it’s one thing if you’re doing a “good enough” search – which I occasionally do – and you *know* what functionality you’re missing out on. The problem is that a lot of the time we’re now teaching students *only* the “good enough,” and the reason they don’t use advanced functionality isn’t because it’s not useful to them, but because it’s usually hidden and they don’t know why they *should* occasionally use it. At least if you teach them, they’re making an informed choice.

  2. Martha Martha

    THANK YOU. Also, I often show students the advanced search screens. Why? Because it helps them to structure how they are searching. Having separate boxes to fill in rather than just one big, empty, nebulous box means they are nudged to figure out the individual concepts inherent in their search question. It encourages them to be more specific about what they want and need.

    Oh, yeah, and I love subject headings and want to marry MeSH. There, I’ve said it.

  3. Iris Iris

    Yes, I think advanced search screens may not be necessary every time, but when you’re first opening a new database they can help orient you to the capabilities, possibilities, and priorities of a given database. So I teach that in my “here’s how you’d teach yourself a new database” types of classes.

    Ah yes… if only the MLA International Bibliography had anything remotely as consistent as MeSH… I’d be a very happy girl.

  4. Brava. I almost always teach Boolean (though I never call it that) and am completely unashamed to admit it. How the heck else are they supposed to find remotely relevant results on a topic like reducing juvenile delinquency through after-school sports programs without Boolean operators?

    I mean, yeah, if all you need is stuff on frogs, by all means go right ahead. But this is college, kids, we expect better of you now.

  5. Cindy Martin Cindy Martin

    I really like your end of session survey question, I am always looking for ways to engage Law Clerks in my training sessions.

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