Friday, March 15, 2013

Laser Focus

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In my previous post, I gave a very brief summary of the earliest forms of online searching, which was carried out almost entirely in the highly-structured bibliographic databases available, in general, only to librarians and information professionals.

From our modern perspective, we might think that these databases are somewhat limited in scope and content: a database might cover a single industry (e.g., construction) or discipline (e.g., chemistry). The earliest versions contained only citations, or citations with abstracts; full texts of articles, which we now take for granted, were added only later.

But the limited scope, and in particular the highly-structured formatting and the indexing done by actual, real, human information professionals, enabled laser-focused searching and very reliable results.

Though the internet now offers v-a-s-t quantities of information, I still use the same structured databases, and I still rely on them for quick, focused, reliable results. Here’s why:

Professional database search systems enable me to perform deep, specific searches, whether narrow or broad, over dozens of technical, business, and news databases with just a few keystrokes. Using the structural parameters defined by each database producer, I can limit my searches to certain parts of a record (title, author, lead paragraph, descriptors), or I can conduct a general keyword search. Because I can use free-text keyword searching, or the defined subject list for each database, or a combination of these methods, I can conduct very precise subject searching. I can limit my search to a certain geographic area, or to information published in a certain language. I can combine ideas to identify articles that address particular combinations of topics. I can limit the search to material published in the last day or in the past hundred years. These are just a few of the options available; there is almost no end to the way this data can be manipulated to yield meaningful results.

There’s tremendous power in these databases, provided one has the expertise to use them effectively and cost-efficiently. Every good research/reference librarian who uses these databases has developed expertise in a range of intellectual feats including memorizing the organizational parameters of individual databases; developing deep knowledge of multiple thesauri; crafting effective search strategies with Boolean logic.

Of course, with the advent of the Internet and its vast resources, I’ve expanded my general search process to include open-web searching, as well as the continuous identification and mastery of specialty sites in my clients’ areas of interest.

Since many of my consulting projects require really deep and broad searching, I frequently combine database searching with open-web explorations, as I’ll explain in my next post.

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