Think of the promises web search engines make to us. Powerful search engines make sure we get the answers we need. Or think we need. Or at least something close to what we think we need. The fact that we are able to get a long results list on whatever topic we search for does something to us and our expectations of what technology can help us with. We feel confident because we managed to find an answer. Any answer.
What happens when this confidence, created in the web search world, is transferred to a library database? Library databases have individual user interfaces and require individual search strategies for people to glean good results. Federated search and discovery systems, moving toward a Google-like, single search box, one interface, try to inject that web search world “look and feel” into the library setting.
The reality is that, even though information professionals find the promises of web search engines do not always ring true, library users think those promises are fulfilled. Moreover, they expect that library databases will be similar to their web search experiences.
In an attempt to find out more about user search behavior, we looked at more than 21,000 searches done in 2012 in our previous federated search engine, ExLibris’ MetaLib. (Along with most Norwegian academic libraries, we now use ExLibris PRIMO alongside BIBSYS for book search. BIBSYS is formally organized as a unit at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU), Trondheim, and its board of directors is appointed by the Norwegian Ministry of Education and Research.) [The ExLibris press release detailing its relationship with Norwegian Libraries is here . —Ed.]
Our findings were eye-opening. Some searches were quite good. Almost one in five searches yielded fewer than 100 results. We concentrated on the remaining 80%. The most disturbing finding was that more than 60% of all the searches ended up with no hits at all. We suspect some of these were timed-out searches—the search took too long to do, a familiar problem with our then-federated search option. But even if we took away these, a vast number of searches still resulted in no answer at all for the user. Recognizing that this is very frustrating for the user, we wanted to identify the most common reasons for zero results and ask ourselves what we, as librarians, could do to remedy the situation.
Spelling is not always easy, especially when it is in a language not your own. Our users mainly have Norwegian as their first language, but the language that predominates in library databases is English. Even native English-language speakers, however, may well encounter spelling errors.
Search engines, and good discovery systems, typically try to fix your spelling error by asking, “Did you mean …?” A traditional library database often doesn’t provide this service, although spelling can sometimes be fixed by type ahead or auto-suggestion features. We found several examples of misspellings. Students searched for canser instead of cancer, sergery instead of surgery, and psycological instead of psychological.
Another very common mistake was searching for very broad topics. Searches for history, arctic, therapy, or fish understandably yielded thousands of results.
Whether it’s spelling or search terms that are overly broad, we found that searchers don’t always give up easily. They sometimes persist until they come up with a few results.
With a myriad of databases to choose from, it’s no wonder library users sometimes get it wrong. We found searches for Dorian Gray in Early English Books Online (EEBO) and a search for Wayne Rooney in Psycbooks. We wondered why someone thought that MEDLINE would be a good database for a search on Greenland AND colonial history.
An incorrect use of search fields was also frequent among those who ventured into advanced search. In particular, the subject field seemed to confuse users. We found searches like speed of processing and age-related, as well as complete article titles entered into the subject field. We also uncovered a search for “forfatter” in the WAU field. “Forfatter” is the Norwegian word for author, so the search was for author in the author field, rather than an actual person’s name as author.
The most surprising mistake was, however, that searchers used Boolean operators incorrectly. What is pure logic to any librarian is apparently not that clear to anyone else. We found searches for nursing OR hypochondriasis and practice knowledge OR health. Clearly, at least to librarians, a Boolean AND rather than an OR should have been the choice of operator. Similarly, we found the same word in two different languages combined with the AND operator. Examples are role-play AND rollelek. “Rollelek” is the Norwegian word for role-play.
The zero-results effect
For the hordes of our users who have become accustomed to always getting some kind of answer to their searches, the brutal meeting with a library database can be very problematic. Probably more so for the library than for the user, since the library has invested a lot of resources into getting products with quality content.
A few failed searches will easily send the user back to Google. How can we provide a good search service and make it simple enough for anyone to use?
Who is the expert?
First of all it is important to realize that searching is a complex operation. As with any other skill, it needs practice and training. This is quite a dilemma in modern libraries. We want our users to be skilled searchers, and we want them to use the products provided by the library.
On the other hand, most of our library patrons are not necessarily skilled searchers and don’t see any reason why they should be—if they are at all aware of their lacking search efficiency, which they probably aren’t.
Should the library provide the actual searching for the patrons, or is it simply more cost-efficient to increase focus on user instruction? So far, the debate has leaned heavily on the second solution. With library systems becoming increasingly user-friendly (we hope), it is quite difficult to see how we could persuade library patrons to learn more about searching.
To justify spending a large part of the library budget on databases that users find difficult or even unnecessary requires us to sit down and properly discuss the library’s role in information searching and how to best assist students and staff in their research process. We need to raise awareness among library staff about the particular challenges our patrons experience and take the common mistakes made by our users seriously.
Improved user training and an increased focus on searching in information literacy classes can help mitigate the complexity of library database searching.