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How do professionals learn to search?

I had just finished my keynote for the Colorado Association of Libraries in Loveland last Saturday and thought I was home free - I'd fooled people once again into thinking I know where of I speak.

Then a very nice, thoughtful librarian approached me and asked simply, "What resources are available to help practicing librarians learn how to do good online searches?"

And I stood there with an even more stupid than usual look on my face. I really didn't have any suggestions right offhand even though I often inveigh audiences of librarians that they must become the "expert" online searchers for their students and staff.

I can't say I practice what I preach. I am not all that good at searching myself. I know one or two tricks and few search tools more specific than Google, but I don't know that I am any better at finding more specific and accurate information online than a third grader - or his teacher.

So, a sincere question to my Blue Skunk readers - what resources or techniques have YOU used to become more effective in finding information online?

And don't tell me to Google it, please.

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Reader Comments (10)

I actually learned a lot about search strategy 20 years ago when I was earning my MSLS. Things like Boolean logic, truncations, quotation marks and wild card characters still come into play! I also find great tips on the Noodletools Teacher Resources page, especially this page on choosing the best search engine for your information needs.
Boolify is a great tool to use with anyone who is learning the basics of search strategies --
And finally, I am one of those dorky people who reads the Help and FAQ pages -- Google has great resources on using Google. :-)

October 19, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterCheri Dobbs

I agree with Cheri, using is the best. However Google does have a great tutorial at according to your skill level. I highly recommend using the tutorial because then you will understand exactly what the web sites are doing when they search. Good luck!

October 19, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMs. Serdy

Hmm...this is interesting. I believe I am one of the best searchers in my school community, but only because I habitually ask the right questions, not because I've mastered any tool. I also believe that the skills I have from years behind a reference desk can be easily acquired by anyone. Saying that you've mastered internet searching implies that you believe something specific about the search, probably that there is a specific piece of information at the end. I'm constantly trying to get colleagues and students to understand that information isn't the end of a search. Information is what we use to formulate hypotheses and questions that become "knowledge". Information is the bits and pieces with which we make an argument or support a belief.

Sooo...if you're asking yourself about the relevance, timeliness, purpose, credibility, scope, and currency of a piece of information, aren't you a good researcher? Even if you know everything about how to use google, then you've already limited yourself to what is available to google. When I ask students what google searches (after we get past the bit of explaining that it is an index, like the back of book) they tend to glaze over in wonder and say "everything..."

But all Google really does is provides a way of sorting an index of that which is publicly and commercially available on a world-wide network of computers. Soo...while that is a whole freaking isn't everything. In fact, sometimes a much smaller, peer-reviewed, paid for, subscription database, is just the ticket for drilling into what you're looking for.

So I don't think good searching is a skill-set, but a mind-set, and that is what you're supposed to learn in library school! I remember in one of my earliest classes a professor drilling into us that sometimes the most efficient search is to just ask the guy next to you. Why waste time looking in a book!

Which as an aside, may be the future of search as talked about in this article Google Effects on Memory. It is my belief that social networking will supplant the demon email with a more useful stream of information that is curated/culled by our peers and trusted resources as it arrives to us.

So yes, there may be a new search engine or tool every other day, but like technology, it is the mind-set not the skill-set, which makes you savvy.

Oh, and sometimes the guy next to you is a 3rd grader. Most people stick with even poor search methods if those methods have led to success in the past. The savvy seacher is open to new strategies no matter where they come from!

Man, I wish I could have these conversations live! Just enough of a brain break for me to move on to the next thing. Thanks again for the forum Doug!

October 19, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterDan Davenport

Hi Doug,

One of my favorite little apps is called Let Me Google That for You (  The site boasts - "For all those people who find it more convenient to bother you with their question rather than google it for themselves." Here is a sample of what it does when I searched Google Search Tutorials -. It may be a good way for kids and adults to test/compare their work because it will store the sample as a link.

October 19, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJen Hegna

I agree with Dan. I put together a pathfinder last week for one of the faculty, and he commented on what great stuff I was finding. But, really, I was just pulling websites off the first couple pages of a Google keyword search, with a couple .gov and .edu limiters thrown in for good measure.

It's not about the techniques, it's about the search terms, and being willing to try different word sets when the original ones aren't finding what you're looking for. Mostly, it's about persistence.

Or maybe I just suck at it and am trying to make myself feel better.... : )

A student said the other day, "I'm finding better stuff on a Google search than in the databases." I had a knee-jerk "you're wrong" response, but when I'm honest, he's right in some ways. Google is getting better and better at sifting, I think, and for some topics, it IS better, as long as the student is pretty good at web evaluation. I know that's library sacrilege. And a big "if."

October 19, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJeri Hurd

grin--OK, I've been thinking about that "Google is better" comment. What I really should have done with the student, is have him define what he means by "better." How was Google better serving his needs at that point, and why wasn't a database appropriate? When might a database be more productive for him?

Ah, the beauty of hindsight...

October 19, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJeri Hurd

The search tool I use the most, and find hardest to describe is broad generalist knowledge of a lot of topics.

I do not, in fact, know everything. (As I say, I fake it really well.) But I read widely, I hang out with friends who do all sorts of awesome stuff, and I know some really quick ways to brush up fast. That means that when someone asks question, I'm not starting from zero: I usually have an idea of a couple of specialised terms that will help me narrow a search fast.

When I don't, I dip into Wikipedia (and I'm quite open about it). I point out that I'm not using it as my sole source, but that it's usually a *great* way to get a sense of chronology, common terms for the subject, important names in a field. (I also look at the sources actually cited, since sometimes that will answer the question at hand.)

October 20, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJen

I use keywords everyday to find the information that I need. Here are some basics that are found in this lesson:

October 24, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterBarbara Wilkins

Hi Cheri,

These all look like great resources. Thanks so much for sharing them. Once AASL is over, I'm giving myself a crash course.


Hi Ms Serdy,

The Google link is great.



Hi Dan,

Do library schools still teach students how to do a "reference interview", I wonder. You are right - it is more about what questions to ask than any particular strategy.


Hi Jen,

I've seen this lmgtfy site. I suppose my old age is showing, but I still think kids (and many adults) can use the services of someone who may have training and experience doing search. It's a little like using a travel agent - most of the time one can do stuff online without help. But every now and then, the specialist comes in handy! There is still a lot of stuff Google doesn't search!


Hi Jeri,

So reading between the lines, it's practice, practice, practice?

There HAS to be an "Internet Searching for Dummies" book out there somewhere! Oh wait, there is:


Hi Jen,

I appreciate the perspective. It fits nicely with Dan's observation about asking the right question. What can we teach kids regarding this approach???


Thank, Barb. Some of the basics from the old days of print reference still work!


October 25, 2011 | Registered CommenterDoug Johnson

I am working online since 1998 and i will use google search most of the the time everyday. Searching on google to get the best result is now going become very difficult. Now a day's when you search any thing about study, places, medical things etc., it is showing blog pages on top. Actual information is not coming out with google.

February 3, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterManabadi

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