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Five Things No One Tells You About Library Research

This Is Not the Search Box You're Looking For

510 terms, 663 searches, 7 days. Term: art and art history, architecture and urban design, com lit 180, usmle first aid step 1 2015, clifford brown, travel, 1956 US pop chart, Japanese American Civil League, clifford brown, college rock

That's the search log for the Research Guides search box (the one you'll find at the top of this page). It shows the top ten searches for the past week. Most of them suck. Why?

  • That search box is searching the text of the Library's research guides. Those guides rarely mention individual titles. So it's useless to search here for clifford brown or college rock. Instead search for jazz musicians or popular music to find links to databases (search engines) where you could do those searches.
  • Japanese American Civil League pulls up 295 pages, but that's only because those are all common words. You'll waste a lot of time looking through them for mention of the actual Japanese American Civil League. Put it in quotes to search for the exact phrase. (Which, by the way, has 0 results, see bullet #1.)
  • Surprisingly com lit 180 actually gets you to the guide for Comparative Literature 180... but only because the URL for that guide is comlit180. That string of characters doesn't otherwise appear anywhere in the guide, Sometimes luck makes up for sucky searches!

Students suck at searching . . .

Study after study has found that college students are absolutely abysmal at using search engines. You think you're good because nine times out of ten you find what you want in Google. But that's not because you're good at using Google, it's because Google is so good at being idiot-proof. And Google is idiot-proof only because a) the inter-linked nature of the Web allows unique advantages in its ranking algorithms and b) most Google searches are for common things. But academic data sources are not organized into one interwoven hypertext web, and academic searches are not for common, simple things.

Most students don't have the faintest clue how search engines actually work. I'm not talking about hardcore programming knowledge, but just simple facts like what the keywords are supposed to match up with or what happens when you add or subtract words. They see an empty box and just start typing in words without a thought. And that's just the basics. Until you master at least the basics, you're probably wasting hours of time on dumb searches.

. . . and many people want to keep things that way.

The surest sign of success is imitation, and libraries aren't immune to this. So when Google became wildly popular, many people asked "Why can't library searching be as simple and easy as Google searching?" And while some people tried to explain that this was analogous to asking "Why can't the controls for nuclear reactors be as simple and easy as the controls for my microwave?", a lot of otherwise very smart people bought into the idea, and decided that library searching should be as easy as Google searching. And thus began the long and ongoing quest for the holy grail of library science: a simple, seamless search interface to all library content.

I don't want to be too negative. Some progress has been made, and we've learned a lot about how to improve the tools we do have. But as a side effect of the quest to be like Google, many bad tools have also been produced and put out there for use. They're easy to use and work fine if you're researching simple, common topics; but are useless for any kind of in-depth research.

More importantly, there's a certain reluctance to spend time or resources developing or teaching people how to use "old school" search engines, you know, the ones that require more than third-grade competence to use. Library administrators have their eyes on the shiny (but probably mythical) prize, and it's hard to argue with that trend since it's also what all the students and faculty want—a magic djinni that will do all the hard thinking for us.

Result: You need to learn how to search.

First, learn where to search. UCLA subscribes to about a thousand databases, and each has its own search engine which looks for different things. Don't look for article titles in a book catalog, or vice versa. And don't search for the title of an individual work in a site search box!

Second, learn what words the search engine is looking for. Most databases are not searching the full text, they're only searching metadata like title, subjects, and abstracts. Unless you know what types of metadata a database includes, you won't know what types of words to search for.

Finally, learn the more advanced search techniques like controlled vocabularies, Boolean logic, and truncation symbols. These options aren't present in all search engines, and are implemented differently in each database, but knowing what to look for will let you take advantage of them.

Once you know how to use these techniques you'll find your research gets a lot easier. And you'll be able to impress your TAs and professors, especially when you learn the dirty little secret of academia: most of your professors suck at searching almost as much as you!