Follow This Blog: RSS feed
Neverending Search
Inside Neverending Search

A letter to my seniors (updated)

A recent conversation on ALA’s  INFOLIT list–By graduation, what should K-12 students know about web search?–inspired me to update a post I did a few years back for eVOYA.  I’ll share this letter with my seniors in the next couple of weeks.

Congratulations, Dear Senior Class,

Secretly, I wish I could go along with you to Penn State or Pitt or Temple or wherever the academic wind or your passions blow you.  (I really do.)  But short of that, I’ll settle for being able sending my best advice–a letter to stick in the pockets of your gowns at graduation.  Because your gowns do not have pockets, I’ll send you my advice digitally.

Here are some thoughts and tips for using your information and communications landscapes powerfully.

As a mom, the graduation experience always brings to mind that weekend I took the training wheels off both my own kids’ bikes.  We were determined to ride those two-wheelers like big kids for the first time. We’d been falling and getting up a lot. I was a little nervous, but the moment came when all that practice paid off.  With a little push, and some you-can-do-it shouts, my two kids successfully flew down the road balancing on their very own.

And so, I wonder.  As you lose your research training wheels, what should you take along to balance your course and fly straight through even bumpier information and communication challenges?  Will you demonstrate transliteracy and distinguish yourself from other freshmen without similar skills? What would my you-can-do-it shouts of advice sound like?

In general:

When you have the opportunity to search, I hope you will stop and wonder first. I hope you will ask meaningful questions, questions that fascinate or provoke.  I hope that the next step of your research journey allows you to inquire about things that help you stretch intellectually and make meaning of your world.  I hope that you continue to learn by connecting and sharing with others. And I hope that the products of your journey allow you to demonstrate creative thought.  I hope that you make work that makes a difference.

When you search:

Imagine your dream documents. Those that best address what you are wondering about.

What words would the author of those documents include?

Think about words. When you search, enter the most important words first.  Try nouns first. When you are looking for images, adjective searching often results in powerful, evocative stuff.

Mine for words and ideas. You may not know what you don’t know in a new or unfamiliar discipline.  Your limited vocabulary is certain to limit your results. Read. You need context, a basic level of understanding. Mine your best results and the best documents you find for new words, phrases, names, and organizations.  Read some more. Be on the lookout for synonyms and related terms.  Listen to how experts (including your professors) describe a topic.

Subject headings and peripheral vision. Use the subject headings—the controlled vocabulary–that appear in library databases to discover new vocabulary, to better understand broader and narrower concepts, and to discover related topics.  When you use subject headings you take advantage of the work the database does to group like stuff together, to organize knowledge. Some search engines—clustering and semantic search tools—also offer subject heading or tagging help. When they are available in any search tool, make use of related searches, timelines, and subject headings.  Keep your eyes open to discover related people, organizations, and events.

AND is your friend. Search engines like Google and some databases are AND agnostic. But many databases worship AND as a Boolean operator. It is a cue that ensures all those words and phrases you enter in your search box appear in your results.  Because you are not always able to easily determine how a database treats AND, it is better to be safe and use it as a word between words and phrases.

Quotation marks make very good friends too.  In both search engines and databases they keep together words that want to be together. Use them when you are searching phrases.  Phrases are two or more words that want to be next to each other in the very same order as they appear in your dream docs.  Names, songs, book titles, and true phrases like “genetic engineering” and “bed and breakfast” are best searched as phrases.  So are quotable lines like “to be or not to be.”

Exploit your killer docs! Once you’ve found that greatest article in the universe, examine its references. Whom did the author cite?  Are the cited articles relevant to your research?  Do the names of certain authors appear over and over again in the literature of the field? Should you dig up those documents by those authors too?

Use the advanced search screens: Whether you are in a search engine or a database, advanced search screens allow you to better focus your search.  In databases you may choose to filter by date range or publication title, media type, field, publication title, document type or length.  You can easily combine or eliminate words.  One of my favorite advanced strategies is to search Google by file type.  .doc and .pdf files can result in longer documents, sometimes valuable reports and ebooks.   Searching by domain allows you to find only .gov or .edu sites.

Are you searching in the right place?

Think bigger than Google.  Think bigger than Wikipedia.  Think bigger than YouTube.  Think bigger than that one trusty database you may have relied on all through high school.

Select databases with skill and an open mind. You became real comfortable with our high school databases.  Think beyond those databases you knew and loved.  Those databases had research training wheels too. You will find their look-alike older brothers and sisters on your college library’s website.

This may seem obvious, but if your research involves history and scholarly thought and references to the great conversations, all those news and current events databases are not likely to help.

Your university databases cover more journals, more magazines, more newspapers, more reference tools and other sources. They have more full-text. They are often more specialized. You will also find a variety of databases devoted to the knowledge and literature of your major and the other disciplines you elect to study.  Use them first!

Read the abstracts or summaries in those databases to decide if a document will be helpful or relevant.

For many of your projects, your instructors will expect you to find scholarly, academic, or peer-reviewed content. Know how to find that scholarly stuff. You may choose to begin with Google Scholar, but you will more likely find the full-text you need in the university databases. JSTOR is usually a good choice with its mostly scholarly content. In the other databases, remember that you can filter for the scholarly stuff.  Look for the easy button. It will be clearly labeled scholarly, or peer reviewed, or academic.

Interview your sources, triangulate, be fussy, as Howard Rheingold says, detect crap:

Ask questions of your sources. Who wrote the document? Why did they write it? When did they write it? Who is the intended audience? Through whose lens are you reading the story? If you discern bias, is that bias useful in developing your inquiry? Do you need to supplement this document with other points of view to fully understand an issue? If you cannot discover authorship, why might it be hidden? Is the document worth quoting or documenting?

What exactly are you holding? Is it a magazine or journal article, a reference entry, real-time news article, a blog post, the stream of a Twitter hashtag, a wiki page, an essay in an anthology, an academic thesis or dissertation?  Is it academic/peer-reviewed or popular?  Lines are getting blurrier. While, as I mentioned earlier, your professors may prefer scholarly content, the traditional academic publishing process is opening up and scholars may be as likely to publish in online, open source journals as well as traditional journals found in databases.

Be open to new types of sources. Primary sources come in multiple flavors these days. In the context of any particular project or information need, emerging media—blog post, Twitter streams, curation efforts–may be critical in understanding a story.  If you can clearly defend your use of a nonacademic source in a project, I would go for it.

Be energetic about documentation. I taught you to respect the intellectual property of others, to lead your readers to your sources, to credit the work of those who contribute to your knowledge building.

You learned about crediting sources in all your high school research, regardless of the medium your own research product took.  Your professors will expect similar diligence whether it is in a familiar format or one that is new to you.  Follow your instructor’s style sheet or the style recommended by the university even if is not explicitly required.  Step up and show yourself as a responsible scholar.  Demonstrate that you understand information ethics. Be proud of the research you conduct.

Remember, a loose-leaf notebook is no longer an adequate container for the dynamic media and digital sources you collect. You will want to use web-based citation generators, not only for their formatting, but also for their ability to facilitate document storage and notetaking.  In addition to NoodleTools, and Easybib, consider tools that like Mendeley, Zotero, and Evernote.

Exploit social media:

Search smart—push. Don’t work so hard when you don’t need to. These days you don’t always need to pull or search for information.  You can learn to have the specific information you need pushed to you.

When you are searching a database, you will be able to have your searches continually updated by setting them up as email alerts or RSS feeds.  After you do your very best search, you won’t have to keep checking the database for new content.  Instead, the database will come to you when new stuff appears.  Google Alerts  ( searches blogs, news, the Web, video and more, pushing new content directly to your email.

RSS feeds also come in the form of blogs and news sources.  Look for feeds that match your research needs or your interests.  An economics major might want regular feeds to sections of the Wall Street Journal or The Economist.  An art major might want to regularly see the Arts section of the New York Times.  Set up your feeds in a reader or feed aggregator like Google Reader or, perhaps, on a wiki, blog, or Google Site.

Look beyond articles: real-time search plays a role in your research.

When you do search, search for blog posts as well as Web documents and articles. Blogs can be powerful primary sources.  They often provide breaking news in a particular field and may be written by experts or first-hand observers who are in a position to forecast and identify trends.  Blog content can also be more timely than content that goes through the formal publishing process.

Learn to love hashtags and @ signs as tools for research and networking. Search social networking tools like Twitter to lead you to individuals, groups, publications who are engaged in digital conversations, often serious ones.  They may lead you to critical documents and media, as well as curation efforts. You may choose to contact these sources.  You may decide to join the conversation yourself.

A number of new tools aggregate the various sources of real-time news and social search.  They include the far-reaching Mashpedia ( and Social Mention (

You may choose, also to follow or subscribe to curation efforts maintained by subject experts, librarians, and enthusiasts using tools like these for search:

Search media, not just text

When I begin my own research on a topic, when I get ready to present, I often look for video and slideshows to help me get my arms around that new topic.  I use YouTube ( and Google Video ( of course, but I also look at Vimeo (, SlideShare (, AuthorStream (  Consider storing and sharing the slideshows and videos you create in these portals.

Other media platforms, like Academic Earth (, TED ( and the Khan Academy (, as well as a growing number of tools that provide open courses or open educational content (

Appreciate the gifts of Creative Commons and the Open Source movement

And speaking of finding media, use Creative Commons ( search tools when you produce and remix media–images, sound, video. Creative Commons  ( licenses allow creators to change copyright terms for their work from the default assumption of all rights reserved to a variety of some rights reserved options.  People who contribute to the Commons want to share their work with you, as long as you attribute. Using Creative Commons resources demonstrates your respect for intellectual property, as well as your recognition of a more open information landscape, and the need for content users to build on prior knowledge.

The Creative Commons movement is great and growing.  By the time you graduate from college, it should cover a huge amount of the creative stuff on the web.

Consider assigning a Creative Commons license to the work you create.  (You can always go back to our Copyright-Friendly Pathfinder for more background and a growing list of media portals.)

Are you sharing your own voice? As you finalize any research product, check for whether or not your voice is heard in your writing or media creation.  Does your product truly reflect your careful reading, analysis and synthesis? Does it go beyond the simple pasting together of related quotes?  Did you choose your quotes carefully?  Did you introduce your quotes to share why they are meaningful in furthering your thesis or points?

Did you carefully organize your evidence or new knowledge logically into paragraphs, sections, arguments?  Do your transition sentences/slides/frames help the reader understand the points you try to convey?  Do you open and close your product clearly and powerfully?  Did you proofread and consult another person as an editor?

Whatever medium you choose, are you proud of your creative work?  If you are, please publish it.

Final thoughts and bigger things

I’ve shared a lot of little things above, and throughout our years together.  But when you think back on those years, I hope you see a bigger picture.

Yes, I want you to show your professors your research chops.  But more importantly, as a college student and as a curious learner,

  • I want you to ask important questions with your research.  I want you to read carefully, to look for patterns, think, analyze, wonder.
  • I want you to discover what excellence looks like.  I want you to display excellence yourself.  I want you to distinguish yourself from other freshmen with your curiosity, interest, and skills.
  • I hope you will do more than what researchers in the area of research call satificing (a cross between satisfying and sufficing).
  • I want you to dig deeper and more thoughtfully than many of your peers will. I want you to use your skills to discern relevance, quality, and credibility in the context of any inquiry situation
  • I want you to seek truth and to understand that truth may be seen through a variety of lenses.
  • I want you to develop a network.  I want you to learn through your connections with other learners, scholars, experts, regardless of where they live..
  • I want you to reflect on your inquiry journeys and the quality of your products.
  • I want you to understand that your important research will end in effective communication of what you learned
  • I want you to use your voice. I want you to contribute. Tell your stories. Publish or broadcast your best work.
  • I want you to play and create and share.
  • And I want you to make your work make a difference.

Most important final thought. You are not alone.

It is not uncool to ask for help.  You will find librarians everywhere.  I’ll admit it makes me sad, but you will find other librarians who will take my place.

You will likely find virtual reference on your campus. You will find mobile apps for research, organization, documentation.  You will find online writing laboratories.

But I urge you, please also get up and take a walk. If you make it to the library, and smile a little, you will make friends!  Librarians will help you.  Build relationships like the one we had here. You may find that your university has several libraries.  The librarians who work in these libraries have specialties in your majors. They know about stuff you need to know about and how to get the stuff you most need.  Make friends with your new librarian.

And guess what, Sweetie?  I am still here.  I love getting email and tweets and even texts. I want to hear about your issues and your successes.

Keep in touch.  Keep pedaling.  Please let me know if you need a push.

Wishing you much happiness in all your searches and explorations,

Your high school librarian,

Dr. V

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. To this terrific research primer I would like to add four more curated research sites for your consideration: (for lower elementary students) (elementary – high school) (high school & college) (college)

    Each of these are Google custom search engines including only information sources recommended by teachers, librarians, and library and educational consortia. They are all free.

    Please check them out and let me know how they might be improved.

    Dr. Michael Bell
    Former Chair, Texas Assoc. of School Librarians

Speak Your Mind