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What not to teach (about searching)

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.)

Joyce Valenza About Joyce Valenza

Joyce is an Assistant Professor of Teaching at Rutgers University School of Information and Communication, a technology writer, speaker, blogger and learner. Follow her on Twitter: @joycevalenza


  1. Great post. I have recently been questioning the necessity of teaching Boolean strategies anymore. I personally rarely use Boolean search terms unless, as you mentioned, I am using a database, in which case “AND” is useful. I also agree with the importance of flexibility and of using nouns as search terms. I’m curious to hear other thoughts on the subject.

  2. I agree that Boolean knowledge is good for background “under the hood” as you put it, but not a daily necessity. Still like wildcards, especially in databases, though.

  3. Melissa G says:

    I agree as well – the need is just not there now. One thing I do still show the students is how to narrow an Internet search to a specific domain name
    ex. “cosmetic surgery” site:gov We discuss the fact that there are other reliable and authoritative websites available – but for statistics this works well. For the example above it brought the student to some pretty reliable info. Things are constantly changing . . . Great list.

  4. I also don’t dwell on Boolean search terms. I do teach that most search engines use Boolean logic and I teach quotes. I also encourage students to change search strategies if they don’t like their results. But it is hard to promote use of databases that aren’t as intuitive as Google; EBSCO databases are a prime example. If the search interface is harder to use and full-text results are often not available, why should students use them?

  5. What a useful post! I’m taking a Principles of Searching class right now for my MLIS and we’re using Dialog. While I too like being able to see under the hood, I completely agree with your list of what to teach students about searching. I like truncation, though and also using a thesaurus (book or online) to help come up with new terms. In databases, these kinds of tools are useful.

  6. Google has created some posters with search tips: do a Google search for “Google librarian center tools” (I couldn’t paste the URl in here.)
    I show the students how to build a search including the topic, the type of information (map, diagram, statistics, FAQs, etc.)as well as domain search and using a synonymous search: ~teen will find “teenaged, youth, etc.”

  7. I am glad that your article gave solid suggestions about how to approach the topic of teaching searching. I have been struggling with this recently. Thanks!

  8. I am glad that your article gave solid suggestions about how to approach the topic of teaching searching. I have been struggling with this recently. Thanks!

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