The first step of any visit to a library is usually a catalog search, but with the modern networked library any basic search is likely to turn up thousands of hits. Though I admit it’s a matter of opinion, I prefer searching via a search engine to painstakingly poring over a card catalog. However, very few people get taught how to properly use search algorithms, despite the overwhelming utility of that skill. Most developers won’t tell you exactly how their search engine works. That ultimately means that you’ll need to learn basic principles for finding information electronically. Most search engines work similarly, so the same basic principles are always applicable.
An image of the stacks of the Stockholm Public Library by Climadeo. Credit Courtesy Wikimedia Commons
Specificity is extremely vital for any search request, but especially when you’re asking an unthinking machine to give you results. You should always use the fewest possible words relevant to the information you’re hoping to find, but also the most unique words. Each added word in a search is another piece of data the algorithm has to use in sorting results. Thus, if you use too many extra words, you’ll be eliminating possible results. It’s a balancing act between getting enough information, but not too much information that it’s impossible to find anything useful.
As an example, if you want to research myths about Zeus in Greek mythology, you could search something like What are some myths about Zeus in ancient greek mythology? However that phrasing means the search engine will often, without any other guiding context, search for every single word in the phrase. That means that you’ll get information about Zeus, but it will also be looking for documents containing just the words ancient, mythology, about, Greek, some, and myths. You’ll get results related to general greek mythology, encyclopedia entries on Zeus as a god, and information about ancient Greece -- not just myths about Zeus. While modern search engines are usually decent at prioritizing and grouping common phrases, a better search is “Greek mythology” Zeus myths. Putting “Greek mythology” in quotes means that the algorithm will look for entries that contain that phrase exactly as typed and the phrasing eliminates words that can create a false positive.
If the basic search fails you, every search engine contains the ability to use an “advanced search”. Usually the advanced search link is small and in plain text near the bar, as in the above screenshot. When you click it, it might seem overwhelming, but once you master using advanced search you’ll never have trouble finding exactly what you need. Advanced search lets you choose where the algorithm searches within the available documents for info. So to extend the first example, let’s say you specifically want to focus on the recent retranslation of some myths by Stephen Fry. Just searching his name normally will turn up biographies or some of the (rather funny) television work he has done. Searching in advanced search and putting his name in the “author” tab will result in the search only searching for his name when it appears in the byline of the book or paper. Similarly, if you wanted to instead look for translations made during a specific time period, you can select a year (or sometimes even a date and a year) and search for items from before/after it. Explaining every function of advanced search is beyond the scope of this blog post, so I’d encourage the reader to fiddle around with it at their leisure.