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ONLINE SEARCHER: Information Discovery, Technology, Strategies


Hacking Search
September/October 2019 Issue

I’ve begun to think that all searches are hacks. At least, all my searches are hacks. Sometimes the subject matter is so obscure, so complicated, or so controversial, I feel like I’m hacking through a jungle of data with a dull machete. These searches may be trying to ascertain a particular fact when scientific research findings are divided. For example: Do animals have feelings or are humans anthropomorphizing them? That question can keep a searcher occupied for days. Genealogists struggle with this when an ancestor has a common name, making it difficult to tell which John (Johan? Jonathan?) Smith (Smyth? Smythe?) is actually the correct great-grandfather.

Other searches require the precision of a hacksaw cutting through metal. A specialized database on drug interactions, a map of a specific mountain range, or a video explaining how to fix a computer problem might be just the ticket. The old adage of carpenters is, “Measure twice; cut once.” Translated into librarian language, that’s the reference interview. Before you jump to answer, “Washington, D.C.,” to the question, “What’s the capital of the U.S.?” ask, “When?” Depending on the answer to “When?” the correct answer to the original question might be Philadelphia or New York. Clarifying the question is key to getting the correct answer.

Years ago, hackers were hobby computer programmers, and a hack simply referred to source code. That’s when messing about with homebrew computers was fun and not integral to life as we know it. Hacking today is more often associated with illegally breaking into commercial databases containing sensitive information. The headlines are full of news about large companies being hacked and people’s personal data being stolen. Information professionals don’t do these types of “black hat” hacking—at least I hope they don’t. But they might sponsor “hackathons,” which bring together “white hat” coders and developers to work on problem-solving. Defeating fake news, anyone? There could be a hack for that.

Good online searchers excel at creating elaborate strategies and workarounds. These elegant hacks are the hallmark of information professionals. Including nested search terms, proximity operators, Boolean logic, and field restrictions, these creative search queries are common in subscription databases but difficult and often impossible in web search engines. Enterprise search engines, particularly Elasticsearch, allow for such queries, although I wonder how many people maximize the possibilities of advanced searching.

And then there are the searches of which I am not proud. It’s late; I’m tired; I had a brain freeze; and I can’t remember a simple thing like a synonym for cat. This is a hack search in the definition of hack as taking the easiest and quickest, rather than the best, route. Hack as low quality rather than elegant and well-thought-out. I do try to guard against those, and I’m sure you do, too.

All searches are hacks, but some hacks are better than others. To excel at hacking search, know the information architecture of your source, follow the changes that inevitably occur in databases and search engines, and embrace flexibility. 

Marydee Ojala is Editor-in-Chief of Online Searcher (the successor journal to ONLINE) and writes its business research column ("The Dollar Sign"). She has contributed feature articles and news stories to Information TodayEContentComputers in LibrariesIntranetsCyberSkeptic's Guide to the InternetBusiness Information Review, and Information Today's NewsBreaks. A long-time observer of the information industry, she speaks frequently at conferences, such as WebSearch University, Internet Librarian, Internet Librarian International, Computers in Libraries, and national library meetings worldwide. She has adjunct faculty status at the School of Library and Information Science at IUPUI (Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis). Her professional career began at BankAmerica Corporation, San Francisco, directing a worldwide program of research and information services. She established her independent information research business in 1987. Her undergraduate degree is from Brown University and her MLS was earned at the University of Pittsburgh.


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