By Meredith Farkas | March 29, 2006
Google/Ask/Yahoo! is rarely the first place I will look for information when helping a student. If it’s a really current topic, I’ll try Academic Search Premiere and LexisNexis. If it’s something more scholarly and related to a specific subject, I will use subject databases, though I will usually try Academic Search Premiere as well since it just has so much stuff. Yesterday, I was helping a student find scholarly literary criticisms and books about Tom Robbins’ work. She only had a few days until her paper was due, so ILL-ing books was not an option. The first thing I would have done was search the Literature Resource Center or I would have grabbed the index for the 20th Century Authors series. However, the student had already exhausted the material in the Literature Resource Center (good girl!) and for some odd reason her professor had expressly forbidden them from using any of the first floor reference materials. Ummm… ok… I think the purpose was to get the students using the databases and the library catalog, but while that would work well with Shakespeare or Dickens, there isn’t quite as much on Tom Robbins.
We really don’t have any other databases that specifically find literary criticisms, so I could have spent the next 30 minutes searching various databases looking for stuff about Tom Robbins that was of high enough quality to go into this gal’s paper (most of which would not have been of high quality). Instead, I decided to try a trick that I often find useful when doing reference work — depending on the subject. I know that there are people who are big fans and scholars of authors, wars, historical events, and other subjects. Some fans are passionate enough to make bibliographies of all the works they’ve found on their subject of interest. Sometimes I can do a search in Google/Ask/Yahoo! and find a bibliography on a subject for which it was difficult to find articles doing a regular database search. So I tried doing a search for Tom Robbins and voila! The first result was a “fan site” for Tom Robbins complete with a bibliography of his works and works about him (separated into books, magazines and newspapers, scholarly journals, and theses and dissertations). Yes, the bibliography was a bit dated, but still, it was extremely comprehensive for the years it covered. And since the student needed only three more works and their date did not matter, we were sure we’d find plenty of these in the databases or the catalog. The books about Tom Robbins (he was discussed among many other authors) we would never have found in the catalog because he was not a subject term nor was his name mentioned in the title. The articles I may have found had I searched every conceivable database, but it worked a lot better to find the bibliography, check our A-Z product to see if we have the journal, and find the article in the database that journal is held in. While this trick doesn’t always work, since there aren’t always such fans/scholars for every subject, I find it’s often worth trying if I can’t find enough stuff in the databases. If I don’t find anything, I’ve usually only expended about 1-3 minutes of time.
This is why I never buy the whole Google/Ask/Yahoo! is something librarians should avoid using bit. I always start with the databases, but the databases don’t cover every subject well. Sometimes I can find good things in Google/Ask/Yahoo! because I know what I’m looking for. And I know that my search skills will get better as I face more challenges at the reference desk. But honestly, I think most librarians brush up on their search skills when trying to answer difficult reference questions. Any librarian worth his or her salt will learn something new every day that they are on the reference desk. It’s so important to be flexible and not to only try searching the three things you always search and then give up if you can’t find anything. We have to not only be familiar with our own databases, but with how to search-smart on the Web, and which Web sites have useful subject info. I work with a lot of Masters students in diplomacy and criminal justice, and these students often need to use the Web to find a lot of the statistics and government information they use in their research. Our Criminal Justice Abstracts and Criminal Justice Periodicals are good, but they don’t always meet the needs of our students.
I can’t even believe how much I’ve learned in the past eight months by doing reference, teaching information literacy classes, and creating instructional materials for the online grad students (much more than I could have learned in any class). It’s crazy! So while Steven Cohen tells us to brush up on our search skills instead of “working on that library MySpace account [and] posting pictures of your book collection on Flickr,” I think most of us work on our search skills just by working with patrons (and are those really your options at work? Mine usually are slightly more urgent and necessary). Yes, I look at Resource Shelf and LII, but just like my students, I learn a lot more by actually using what I’ve learned in practical situations. I agree with Steven that online searching should be a core course in library schools, because I’ve seen bad/half-assed searching and that’s why I am so proprietary with reference questions from the online graduate students. And at my school, with many older staff members, we have the opposite problem, where some people ONLY search the databases and never venture out on the Web. And sometimes I wonder if perhaps people who aren’t committed to going the extra mile for their patrons will never make the effort, whether they are search savvy or not. Maybe I’m just a young, overconfident or totally naive librarian, but I honestly think that by being flexible about the resources you use, knowing about your library’s databases, relevant Web resources, and search engines, and always being willing to go the extra mile for your patrons, you’re going to do pretty good reference work.