Online Information Retrieval: The Most Important Course in Library School

By Jill Lynch

Online Information Retrieval was by far the most important course I took in library school. As a librarian, I am required to retrieve relevant documents from electronic databases on a daily basis. Patrons are also most impressed by this skill. Working in an academic library, most patrons want full-text articles. An undergraduate student with less than twenty-four hours to write her first paper or a medical resident needing to know the results of the latest study on about a particular heart medication relies on quick access to full text information.

There were several important factors that transformed me into an expert searcher. These factors include knowing which database to search, knowing how to write a good search statement, and being able to use the thesaurus or subject headings. Identifying which database to search is very important. For example, if I wanted results on autism, I would not start in Grove Art. However, a number of other databases might be relevant such as PsycINFO, Medline, and Academic Search Premier. Being familiar with which subjects each database covers, I am able to quickly search the relevant databases. I am aware that there could be multiple databases that are relevant to my search.

Another important step, I learned, is writing a good search statement. For example, I may have a request from an undergraduate student that needs to write a paper about posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). I could be at the right database and type in the keyword "PTSD" and would probably retrieve numerous documents, but they would not necessarily be the most relevant. In order to create a good a search statement, I was taught to first write down the search sentence. After a thorough interview with the student, I discover that she is interested in the correlation of PTSD and major depression. As a result, I would write that statement down and circle keywords in the sentence, such as "PTSD" and "major depression." The next important step is to create variations of and synonyms for those keywords. For instance, post traumatic stress disorder, posttraumatic stress disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, and major depressive disorder. It is also a good idea at this time to look at the database thesaurus and determine how that database indexes those two words. The Medline database lists "stress disorders, post traumatic" and "depressive disorders, major" as the thesaurus terms, and PsycINFO lists "posttraumatic stress disorders" and "major depression" as its thesaurus terms. Before running the search, I also need to find out if any limiters will be utilized, such as publication dates, language, publication types, gender, age group, or full-text. It is important to consider limiting the use of the full-text limiter. The library I work in may have a print copy of the article in the collection, which can be easily photocopied.

In order to help library students remember how to construct a good search strategy, the professor of my Online Information Retrieval course created a worksheet for us which he called the "Database Search Preparation Worksheet." This worksheet was divided into four sections. Section one included the topic statement with underlined main concepts or keywords, section two was a list of synonyms for those keywords, section three included the list of limiters to be used, and section four was a list of possible databases to search. This worksheet was a valuable tool throughout this course and one that I still use periodically. I have also introduced the worksheet to some of my library instruction students so they too can benefit from this helpful tool.

The Online Information Retrieval course was by far the most useful in my career, as well as the most entertaining course, as it exposed me to a variety of different databases. The majority of my professional skills used at the reference desk involve database searching. Whenever I am searching for information on a database for a patron, I teach them about the best way to search for data. My instruction includes knowing which database to search, using subject headings or thesaurus terms, and writing out a good solid search statement. I find nothing more exciting than the challenge of a good hunt for relevant articles.