Posted by: Emily | October 12, 2009

Using searches that don’t work

So today I took the like thirty seconds necessary to align the SmartBoard so I could take a research topic and pull out the keywords, circling them with that bright red pen, reducing Do women get paid less for their work in the United States? to women OR gender AND pay OR salary OR income AND work OR labor OR job AND United States. And then I opened up the catalog so I could do a little demo, show how you combine the keywords using Boolean search terms to find books relevant to your topic. I asked the class to construct the search, throwing out terms and combining them on the fly.

And they didn’t work. There was just something funny in the keywords we were trying, I was pulling nothing relevant at all. Now, this is pretty normal–I usually need to try and then try again and then again to shake useful stuff out of the catalog. I’m unfazed by that. Research works that way. But I was totally fazed by my broken example in front of the class. I blush, like turn-into-a-tomato blush, and could feel myself doing that in front of this group of expectant students.

What’s your strategy for turning moments like this into teaching moments? How could I have righted my plane?



  1. That’s a tough one. Something similar happened to me recently, and I flat out admitted to the class that I was running out of ideas and that librarians aren’t immune to bad search results. I told them they might have to try another database or generate more search terms if this happens to them–and not to give up. And then I hurriedly moved on to the next example.

    You might try having the class generate some alternate terms on the spot and discuss the concept of controlled vocabulary with them–or look up the terms you’re using in the database thesaurus (if one is available) to see if there are related terms.

    My supervisor, who is in charge of instruction sessions here, usually prints out practice searches ahead of time if she knows the topic. This seems to work pretty well for her. For me, it’s hit and miss–sometimes I get nervous and “forget” to follow the handout.

  2. Right? Like it seems like the perfect teaching moment. Except that i don’t want it to look *too* hard–I want students to see that searching a limited pool of resources is actually easier than hoping you’ll find something useful in Google. But I think you might be on to something with the idea of asking students to come up with alternative language. “This isn’t working, is it? What else might we try?”

    When this happens in a one-on-one moment at the reference desk, I usually grab the computer and just get to it, figuring I’ll be able to crack the controlled vocabulary code before the students will. But maybe it’s important to give ourselves a realistic few minutes of floundering, since that is, after all, what research mostly entails. Floundering around until you find what you need.

  3. I actually end up with this a lot – I have done a lot of classes for business and entrepreneurship students and sometimes they’re looking for very detailed products or services that may not be specifically related.

    I use it to get them thinking about related industries and products – or how we could modify the search to make it work better, maybe take it to a different database. And also, to remind them that researching is work – and that they will hit the same things, but to take a step back and think about their search and how it could work better.

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