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Investments in the Term Economy

Search is all about term matching, and several times in the last couple of weeks I’ve had students think there was nothing on their topics simply because we hadn’t found the right terms yet. Once we’d dug enough to find some useful search terms, we uncovered previously hidden worlds of scholarship which could in turn point us toward related works as we ruthlessly mined them for even more terms, their bibliographies, and their “cited by” works.

Finding the right terms is hard. It takes empathy with the author, it takes some knowledge of the field, it takes some knowledge of related fields (particularly if you’re in an interdisciplinary database and can’t figure out why you’re getting chemistry results in your humanities search), and it usually just plain takes reading. Reading carefully and with an eye toward learning vocabulary. Reading lots. And there are very few shortcuts.

And then comes full text searching of historical documents (something I’m going to be teaching tomorrow). That’s another whole layer of complexity, and I really love what Timothy Burke had to say about that recently. He makes it clear that you really have to read, and read a lot, before you can start searching through historical texts, and he makes it clear that developing a familiarity with other rhetorics is vital to scholarship.

Searching sometimes feels like the modern way and browsing like the legacy way of doing research. But in some sense, search is impossible without a hefty dose of browsing.

Published inSearch and DiscoveryTeaching and Learning


  1. […] A few years ago at a kind of instruction in-service we held in my department, my coworker Kristin talked about a way of reading that she was beginning to teach in her classes. She called it “reading instrumentally” and talked about how she was trying to get her students to read articles for more than subject comprehension — to read them in order to use them as springboards for finding new material. Since then, I’ve started teaching this, or bits and pieces of it, in more and more of my classes. For me, it’s the best answer I can come up with so far to the problem of the Term Economy. […]

  2. […] like being able to learn the differences between kinds of sources, be able to pick out important terms for the topic and field, and see where to go from here (different searches, different databases, […]

  3. […] efficiently and effectively. She also works with students to help them find ways to uncover the specialized vocabulary that researchers in their disciplines use — both so that they can use that vocabulary […]

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