Friday, November 13, 2009

a word about searching

Friday the 13th. Seems more appropriate for Halloween, but since that's on the 31st, I suppose that's out.

Let's see. I just finished The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon, the fascinating mind behind The Yiddish Policemen's Union. Again, there's sort of a historical basis in World War II, although the influence of the war is, of course, more strongly felt in Kavalier & Clay. It's the story of a pair of Jewish cousins -- one of whom, Kavalier, is a Czech refugee from the Prague ghetto in the earliest days of the war -- who become the creative team behind some of the most popular comic-book series of all time. The novel chronicles Clay's struggle with his own private issues while Kavalier ranges across the world in an effort to exorcise his own demons, only to end up losing almost everything and everyone who matters to him. Love blooms and offspring get involved, and a surprise twist at the end leaves you wondering what happens next ...

It's a fascinating, well-written book, full of terrific details and absorbing episodes (the bar-mitzvah scene, where Kavalier moonlights as a stage magician only to have his show interrupted by a real-life supervillain, is a page-turner par excellence). It does run fairly long at somewhere between 530-550 pages, but it's worth every paper cut.

Now, I promised you some real meat. Let's start with with the second-most fundamental aspect of research (the most fundamental aspect is, of course, the research question).

The keywords. Keywords are, basically, the words you use to search for stuff in a database or search engine, like ProQuest or Google. However, most databases work differently from Google. I can't emphasize this enough. Most people just find a database and enter any old term or phrase, like, "How many deaf people live in the United States?"

First, most databases won't look for the answer to the question; they'll look for articles that have any of the words that appear in the question. You'll get 22,363 articles that have "states," "live," "people," "the," "united," "how," "deaf," "many," and "in" in the text of each article. Not helpful.

That's why keywords are important -- they isolate specific concepts and allow you to put them together in a way that gets you what you want. Most people already understand this, so they sit down and start entering any old word. While that strategy sounds just as good a way to start as any, I see a lot of people staring at ProQuest or America: History & Life with no idea what to search for, because they've used keywords that sound good, but now can't remember which ones they've already used, or can't figure out what other keywords might work.

Try this instead:
  • Get a blank sheet of paper
  • Write your topic across the top -- "Colonialism in Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island," for example.
  • Take the important ideas out and split them up into different lists thus:
    • Colonialism
    • Robert Louis Stevenson
    • Treasure Island
  • Grab a thesaurus or find one online -- is a good one. We also have some more specialized thesauri for certain academic disciplines; ask at the Service Desk for help finding one if you need it.
  • Use the thesaurus to figure out synonyms that might work. Although old Robert Louis and Treasure Island are fairly unambiguous, "colonialism" might have a few different synonyms:
    • Imperialism
    • Manifest destiny
    • Expansionism
  • Come up with a few different ways that these words could go together, using:
    • AND (if you want both words in the article)
    • OR (if you want one or the other of two words)
    • Quotation marks (for exact phrases)
    • Truncation marks (also known as wild-card searches; look for a link to something like "Search Help" in the database you're using -- it'll tell you if you can use asterisks, question marks, or other punctuation marks to find variations on the keywords you want)
    • Parentheses (so you can group words together and make smaller searches within the larger search)
    • Thus:
      • "Robert Louis Stevenson" AND (imperialism or colonialism)
      • "Treasure Island" AND (imperial* or colon*)
        • In this case, the asterisks are truncation marks, which means the database will look for words like imperial, imperialism, imperialist, colony, colonial, colonialism, colonialist, colonization, colonized ... well, and so on
    • Play around with different combinations
  • Search.
  • Search.
  • Search.
  • ... and search some more.
The last four aren't jokes. This takes time, effort, and some fancy mental footwork. It's not easy. You'll have to search over and over again, often with tiny variations on the last search, fine-tuning the results you get back. Sometimes you hit a wall and have no idea where to go next.

I'll tell you where to go: the Library. IM us through the chat widget on, e-mail us through, or -- this is usually the best way to get things done quickly -- come on in and ask for help at the Service Desk. We're all old hands at searching through databases and are always, always happy to help out.

Really, searching and finding information for your topic is probably one of the hardest parts of working on a paper or project, second only to actually writing your paper or putting your project together. Part of this is because it becomes difficult to keep track of all the articles you've found and want to use; most students tend to print out every single article, write the important information they need for references on top of the first page, then lug all of it around.

There's an easier way: RefWorks. It's awesome; I'll go into more detail about it next week, so be sure to tune in.

In the meantime, enjoy your weekend! I hear it may be the last warm-ish one we get ...

Question of the Week
Why can you only check out reserve items for up to 2 hours?
Why is the sky blue? Why is the sun yellow? Why does the Planck constant add up to 4.13566733(10) x 10-15 eVs? Well, that last one has an answer, so scratch that.

All facetiousness aside, though, reserve items have a time limit because that's the nature of reserve items -- they're on reserve because your professor wants them to be available to you when you need them. It's hard to accomplish that if we allow any students to check out a reserve item for more than 2 hours. That's also why those items can't leave the Library while they're on reserve. Everyone in a given class needs to have a fighting chance at those items, and the only way to accomplish this is to place some restrictions on their use and apply them evenly to everyone in the course.

This way, if a student really needs her professor's dissertation for class the next day, but it's unavailable, she can at least check ALADIN Discovery and see if it's due back soon enough for her to stick around and wait for it to be returned. In fact, I've seen some students check ALADIN Discovery, see that one of their classmates has checked out the book or movie they need, then literally search the Library for those classmates so they can ask to join the other student and use the item without needing to wait until the other student's done. It almost always works out pretty well.

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