I love that search is now part of everyday life. I also hate that search is now part of everyday life. Search is old. People have been searching for information for as long as there have been people, all the way back to when hunter/gatherers traded information about where woolly mammoths were most easily found and which berries weren’t poisonous. Search was not invented for smartphones; phones added search to capitalize on a human need, but it made search seem new.
Having sophisticated search capabilities abundantly available has trivialized the role of information professionals. Ready reference is now an app rather than a professional job skill. To avoid being declared peripheral to Google, information professionals must assert their superior search skills—and actually have those superior search skills.
One element of superior search skills is using sources other than free websites. Not that there’s anything wrong with free websites, as many provide wonderful, usable, accurate, and timely data. However, saying, “I can search that on the web for you” is not likely to impress your stakeholders and clientele. Knowing how deep we can go in searching, both using web search engines and subscription databases, is more crucial than ever.
Using the bells and whistles of newer entrants into our search world and making sense of what we download gives us an edge. Putting together search queries that incorporate fields, geolocation elements, Boolean operators, and nested logic should make non-information professionals sit up and take notice. Evaluating citation management tools and recommending the best for a specific information project can be a boon in both academic and corporate settings.
Let’s not forget that older articles in our own discipline can still have value. A seminal article, by Don Hawkins and Bob Wagers (“Online Bibliographic Search Strategy Development,” ONLINE, Vol. 6, No. 3, May 1982, pp. 12–19) described methodologies of constructing search queries as building blocks, successive fractions, citation pearl growing, and interactive scanning. Their advice about being flexible, searching the most specific element first, and using metadata remains relevant today. But because the article is 34 years old, information professionals may overlook it. More frequently cited is a 1989 article by Marcia Bates describing berry picking as a query-building methodology (“The Design of Browsing and Berry-Picking Techniques for Online Search Interface.” Online Review, Vol. 13, 1989, pp. 407–424).
A recent flurry of posts to a librarian discussion list, where no one cited the 1982 article, opened my eyes to the imprecision of our professional language. To describe very similar processes, librarians use snowballing, reference or footnote chasing, backward and forward chaining, and bread-crumbing, among others. Do we need new language for today’s searching mindset? I don’t think so. Many of the old words still apply. Although I don’t doubt that librarians will continue to reinvent the wheel, dream up new vocabulary, and continue to ignore 34-year-old articles. Everything old is new again.