A recent post on the LM_NET listserv questioned whether or not we should be teaching Boolean operators. The librarian noted that their use did not improve results. She wondered what do we teach kids about searching these days?
That led me to thinking about all those lessons we learned back in library school that may no longer make a difference. It also reminded me of a student teacher I supervised a couple of years ago who, in an unplanned lesson, used Google to demonstrate the power of AND, OR, and NOT. The students promptly proved they were better off without them
I cut my searching teeth learning Dialog in its original ASCII interface. I prided myself on my ability to create clever search strings using all the lovely operators I learned.
I am glad I understand a little of what goes on underneath the hood of some search tools, but I don’t teach that stuff anymore. So much has changed.
For most of the big search engines, AND is assumed. In my experience, OR makes a very large result list even larger. And, when NOT is really necessary, it is usually easier to disambiguate on an advanced search screen. For instance, Google’s Advanced Search screen clearly offers a box for unwanted words. No symbols necessary.
IMHO, Boolean is one of those things we need not explicitly teach.
What should we teach?
1. Flexibility. Respond to your search results, thinking about words that might be added or eliminated. Scout through that initial list. Were there any good results? Are they relevant? Did you discover new words in your best results you might use next time around?
2. Advanced search screens. Each search tool has its own idiosyncratic rules, rules most learners find confusing. Most of the time, learners have better results when they explore the options on advanced search pages. Students need to know that nearly every search tool–database and engines alike–has advanced options. We can teach them some of the features they will likely find. One advanced tool my own students love is using Google’s file type option to locate longer, often more formal, PDF documents for longterm research.
3. Quotation marks still work beautifully to enclose names and phrases. We have to teach students what a phrase really is. I sometimes see students enclosing strings of words with quotations simply to impress me.
4. Search nouns. They often work better as search terms than other forms of speech. (Funny, when I am looking for powerful images for slide backgrounds, adjectives bring me best results.)
5. List your most important words first.
6. In subscription databases, AND still seems to matter. I can work magic for most students by simply suggesting they use AND to connect concepts.
7. You can choose your search tools. Don’t get stuck in a search rut. Some search tools, like Clusty and Grokker, will compensate for limited vocabulary and context by organizing search results into categories and subcategories. Portals, like Multnomah County’s Social Issues Page, can eliminate the search noise with its selectivity. Flickr’s Creative Commons Pool is a great starting point for students plan to republish their communications on the Web. Debbie Abilock’s Choose the Right Search for Your Information Need will help you build your own search tool page.
8. In databases, recognize you have two main search options. Think about whether you are searching by keyword or topic. Keyword generally works best when you are combining two or more concepts. If one strategy doesn’t work for you, try the other.
9. Be a little 2.0. Have students search tags in blog search, image search, and social bookmarking tools. Push a little. Older students can set up Google Search Alerts or Yahoo Alerts for email search updates for their major research projects. Some of our favorite databases (EBSCO for one) also allow searchers to set up alerts.
Students should also learn to set up RSS readers or aggregators (perhaps using Google Reader or Bloglines) to have relevant news sent to them as it breaks. Common Craft offers the now classic basic video introduction, RSS in Plain English. Students can easily select RSS feeds as gadgets on an iGoogle page. And students may want to keep track of their favorite resources (free and subscription) using a bookmarking tool like Technorati.
10. It’s okay to ask for help. You don’t know everything about the subject you are researching or its vocabulary. That’s likely why you are researching. Ask a librarian for help. Ask a friend. Ask a parent. Brainstorming is fun. Learning is social.
(For additional ideas and challenging interactivities, check out IMSA’s 21st Century Information Fluency portal.)