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ONLINE SEARCHER: Information Discovery, Technology, Strategies


Search Stories
July/August 2021 Issue

Every online searcher I know has stories to tell. It might be about interesting questions that required a considerable amount of ingenuity on the part of the searcher. I classify these as “search ninja” stories. In my talk at Computers in Libraries 2021, I added the categorizations of “success stories,” “ones that got away,” and “still working on this one.” The latter has no time limit, as I know some librarians are still thinking about questions they were asked years ago. It’s frustrating to realize that, with the advent of new technologies such as text and data mining and newly digitized resources, difficult questions from the past are now child’s play, no ninja skills required.

Then there’s the question that simply can’t be answered, often because the underlying assumption is untenable. No, you won’t find photographs of people from the 1600s. No, you can’t retrieve public records that had only one copy on paper stored in a building that burned down. No, you can’t supply driving directions from Indianapolis to Cairo. No, a trustworthy information professional won’t do something illegal to obtain information—that’s why information professional associations maintain codes of ethics.

Another issue is false advertising. A resource claims it contains information that it actually doesn’t. Its “current news from Africa” is drawn from only one newspaper in one country. Government agencies are notorious for collecting reams of data, but, too often, the one statistic needed is not there. Or, the required data is there but it’s out-of-date because the agency stopped collecting it several years ago. Worse still, the agency charged with data collection, particularly in countries weakened by war, famine, or disease, has no resources to collect data, assuming the data was even created to begin with.

The notion of researching backward—starting with the conclusion desired and working backward to find supporting data—is a trap that many researchers fall into. We, or our clients, want to believe something. Whatever that something is, we focus on information validating our belief and discard information that doesn’t. Anathema to pure research, it’s the basis of political pundits, conspiracy theorists, and everyday people trying to prove a point. But what do you do when asked for proof that ghosts exist?

Much as I would like to side with the White Queen in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland when she tells Alice that she often believed in six impossible things before breakfast, simply believing in impossible things does not make them either possible or true. Search ninjas know this. The challenge for researchers is how to gently break the news to the requestor that this may be the seventh impossible thing and can’t be believed before breakfast—or after breakfast either. Before giving up, consider alternatives. That scholarly paper behind a paywall? Use your search ninja skills to locate and contact the author directly for a copy. However, sometimes information professionals must reconcile themselves to the reality that not all questions have answers and be prepared with an explanation for the requestor.

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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