Thursday, March 14, 2013

How Times Have Changed

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Secondary research sure has changed in the twenty-five years or so that I’ve been a professional librarian engaged in reference work.

I’m not even talking about the Really Old Days, when “research” meant taking your pencil and notepad to jot down citations as you paged through massive volumes of Index Medicus or the Reader’s Guide. Of course when those indices, and many others, became available in online databases, the world of online search was born.

In the 1980s and 1990s, “online search” generally meant highly-structured Boolean searching in professional online bibliographic databases such as Medline, EMBASE, Compendex, and the like. These amazing resources, which were based on the old printed indices (Index Medicus, etc.), provided instant access to hundreds of thousands of citations and — if we were lucky! — abstracts. When full text articles became available in the professional database systems, we all thought we’d died and gone to heaven.

It was simple. Clean, quick, and efficient, and — you knew when you were done because you had found everything in the database that fit your search terms. Yes, everything. Though these databases were (and are) very large, still they are finite, and the specific search methods deliver very precise responses.

There was a downside, though. These databases were (and are) expensive. Per-minute charges and per-record charges can really add up. I recall the feeling of dread that would set in during long, difficult searches, as I downloaded records and envisioned the dollars adding up. Or the feeling of panic that would come over me if the phone rang, or a colleague came to speak to me, while the per-minute charges kept ticking over.

Jump ahead twenty years… Now the vast contents of the Internet, and our different search methods, make those old databases, and our delight in using them, seem quaint.

This really struck me the other day as I was working on a very large project for my favorite client. I’m preparing a technical paper for insurance underwriters that will provide background and technical information about the increasingly-widespread failure of a certain building component commonly used in residential and commercial construction.

In the Old Days, I would have tackled the search this way: Develop lists of appropriate terminology; identify appropriate databases; check the terminology against the database subject lists, and modify as needed; develop a Boolean search string for each database, taking into account each database’s unique internal structure and limits; run the search in each database; review lists of likely titles from which to select records to download with abstract and/or full text, keeping in mind the per-record costs; download the material; review it and clean up the document; then pass it on to the client.

That was it. Period. Done. Now, I was (and am) very good at that sort of searching, and I still use those databases for many of my research projects. But those databases are now just one of many resources I use to assist my clients, as I’ll describe in the next post.

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