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Information Literacy Modules (Basic): MODULE #2: Choosing a Search Tool

Contains four modules that introduce basic information literacy and library research skills through videos followed by quizzes.


When you complete this module, you should be able to understand the content and features of common search tools in order to select the best one for a given task.

The links to each video are here:

Here is a link to the module written out: script for Module #2 videos.

Video 1: Search Tools ~ Intro

In the past, when most information appeared in print forms, it was easier to distinguish the tools we used to find different kinds of info. We did not often confuse a card catalog, a public bulletin board, a newspaper rack, or an encyclopedia set. In the digital age, we now encounter most comparable information on the internet, all of it mediated by an interface on a screen. Sources of information look similar to each other, in that sense. Also, when following a series of links, we can easily lose track of what environment we have left and which one we have entered.

For this reason, when seeking out certain information, it is important to be familiar with common types of search tools -- to know what information they contain and what features shape and organize your results. In this module, the term search tool refers to any internet resource which allows you to perform a search, or query, and receive an organized set of matching results within a defined collection of digital content. As such, all of these search tools have a common set of general features: search boxes, results lists organized by algorithms, and optional filters (or “limiters”) applied either before or after submitting the search. However, the content, default algorithms, and available filters are different for each search tool. This is because they are each designed for quite different purposes.

In this unit, we will talk about four different kinds of search tools: search engines, catalogs, disciplinary databases, and discovery tools. The last three are common library search tools, and we will focus on those examples available to you, as a Loyola student, through the Monroe Library website. Please watch the short video on each search tool below, taking note of what kinds of content, default algorithms, and “limiters” each tool offers, as well as some common challenges and strengths of each. Once finished, take the short quiz at the very bottom to see what you are able to recall and apply.

Video 2: Search Tools ~ Search Engines

A search engine is a tool for searching sites on the open web. We say “open” because, despite how many people are convinced by the myth that “everything is freely available on the internet,” the majority of the most sensitive or valuable info is not open to the public. That unavailable kind of information is usually kept behind paywalls and password protections. To use another metaphor, some refer to the “open web” as the “surface web” and that NOT open to public view as the “deep web”. Although you can find some of it out there, much current scholarship and creative work is not freely available on the web. The content of a search engine, then, is limited -- to the info which happens to be housed on websites with unrestricted access.

In the early days of the internet, words like superhighway, web, and surfing were used to convey how vast and intricate was the landscape of multiplying web sites, showing how tricky it was to navigate. Early web entrepreneurs offered different ways to process, order, and search the ballooning digital information. Started in the 90s, Google soon came to dominate other search engines due to its simple interface and its speedy, comparatively relevant results. While Google’s algorithm is tweaked on an ongoing basis, it typically returns massive search results  by finding word matches in the text of websites and pushing popular sites (with many page visits and links from other pages) to the top of the results list. Limiters are highly visible (heading the page) but also few -- focusing on content types -- like news, images, video, or maps -- and commonly asked questions. We might also note the prominence of shopping, ads, and popular media.

Because it is so familiar, many are reluctant to use any other search tools. However, there are several challenges associated with using Google. First, the sheer number of results can be overwhelming, producing what has been called “information overload” and a tendency to consider only the initial page of results to find not the best information but the handiest info that is also the least suspicious or irrelevant. Second, because there is no screening process for what someone puts on their website, the quality -- in terms of reliability and relevance -- ranges wildly, often causing users anxiety about what sources they can trust. Third, advertising and search engine optimization affects the orders of results. Fourth, when patient Google searchers do find a site that is both reliable and relevant, it is not uncommon for them to realize the full content is behind a paywall, so that they are prompted to pay for a scholarly article. This is because scholarly researchers publish their articles in journals related to their fields, and these journals make their money from academic libraries’ subscriptions. 

Even with the availability of tools like Google Scholar -- which has been helpful in that it collects the scholarly work that has been posted freely on the web -- Google offers relatively little in terms of the scholarly full-text content often required for academic research.

Its strengths are its volume, speed, and familiarity. For everyday use like shopping, directions, and general, introductory info -- all available in seconds, at your fingertips -- it is absolutely crucial. Second, there is no easier way to find public-facing info from formal organizations -- businesses, government offices, non-profits, and schools. Third, popular information-- such as a fan review or a personal recipe -- is often neglected by the more “serious” search tools, and very recent or very local phenomena -- like neighborhood news -- may not make the official radar until much later, if ever; in these cases, Google is our “go-to”. Finally, for those of us who do not have institutional access to the resources of a library, especially an academic one, Google Scholar may be our only resource for scholarship, even if comparatively limited. However, for academic assignments that require that you find scholarly academic sources, Google is not the best choice.

This is why, for most academic research, we recommend starting with a library search tool -- unless directed otherwise by your professor or the assignment.

Video 3: Search Tools ~ Library Catalogs

A library catalog is a system for finding long-form information that is housed in a library collection. I will explain what I mean by “long-form information” next. But, before that, it’s important to know that the content of Monroe Library’s catalog includes all the physical items on the shelf, as well as full-length ebooks. Examples of such physical items are print books, dvds, government documents, and cds. Each such item is assigned a call number to indicate where it is located, alongside similar information, in the library. Because most items are grouped by subject, finding one relevant source ordinarily means that you can browse nearby and find other helpful information on the same topic. Under “current location,” the catalog will tell you whether an item is available at the moment, and helpful signage throughout the library tells you where ranges of call numbers are located.

NOTE: Because of the necessary health precautions associated with the COVID-19 pandemic, Monroe Library is not currently open for browsing. You can contact your liaison (see Module #1) for help finding electronic versions of needed books or chapters.

Instead of a call number, ebooks have links to where you can access the ebook, marked with the description “full text available.”

When we say that catalogs include long-form information, we mean longer works considered to be a whole unit to themselves; shorter forms that are part of a larger whole would not be given a record in the catalog. For example, while the catalog will have entries for books, it will not contain a record for an individual chapter within a book. Similarly, the catalog holds records for the names of poetry collections, but not individual poems; has records for a television series on dvd but not for individual episodes.

It’s important to remember for academic research that, while the catalog will contain entries for the names of whole magazines, journals, and newspapers, it will not have listings for individual articles. Therefore, you would not turn to the catalog to find a scholarly journal article because, as part of a long-form journal issue, the shorter, individual article is not listed independently in the catalog.

Because the catalog focuses on long-form works, we commonly search in one of three ways: by title, author (or creator), or subject. It’s worth remembering that long-form works cover more thematic territory than a shorter work, so their subjects are usually broader than that for a more focused and specific article. When searching by subject, then, avoid filling the search box with a series of many narrow topics; instead try using a single somewhat general topic. You can always narrow from there if you get an overwhelming number of results. You can also usually filter results by material type, location or status, subject, and publication year.

As already mentioned, you cannot find articles -- or other short-form works -- with the catalog. Another challenge is that, if you were interested in information held at other libraries, you would not find them in the catalog. It only lists the sources that the library owns.

The latter is also a strength of the catalog: If you want something that should be available at your home institution, and you don’t want to be distracted by listings for items housed elsewhere, the catalog is a helpful search tool. Second, catalogs make it easy to find sources in specific formats. For example, if you are studying remotely for the semester, you can easily filter for ebooks to find a book you can read online. If you want to find a dvd to watch for the weekend, you can limit your search to that format, too. Third, the fact that physical collections are clustered according to similar topics makes it more possible that finding one amazing source could mean that you find several others in the same place. In that way, browsing can lead to unexpected discoveries and efficient research time.

Video 4: Search Tools ~ Disciplinary Databases

Disciplinary databases are search tools with content that is carefully selected to support research in a specific discipline. In some cases, these databases may include information in full text, and in others, they may simply have a citation for finding full text elsewhere. (In the latter case, a librarian can help you find access to those crucial sources in other places.) Examples of disciplinary databases are CINAHL for nursing, ATLA for religion, Computer Source for computer science, and MLA International for literature. 

(NOTE: EBSCO is not a database itself, but the name of a vendor who supplies us with the majority of our databases. So, you will see “EBSCO” at the top of many very different databases.)

There are also some databases that are multidisciplinary, including resources from several disciplines. Examples of these are JSTOR, Academic Search Complete, and ScienceDirect. 
Most databases include scholarly peer-reviewed content, but they may also include other relevant material such as trade publication articles, relevant magazine or news stories, or conference presentations. 

It is important to know how to find the most relevant database for a given class or subject. In collaboration with departments, librarians have created research guides as a single place with most of the resources you need to conduct research in a given discipline. On most research guides, you will find links to helpful information resources, like databases, in the center column. Contact info for the librarian (or liaison) for that subject is to the right; always feel free to let the liaison know if you need help with research for a subject. For more more information on how to use the research guides, see Module #1.

Note: The easiest way to find disciplinary databases is through the research guides. It is impossible to find a disciplinary database by clicking on “Journal Finder” and overwhelming to discover one by clicking on “Databases A-Z”. (We have hundreds of databases.)

When using the advanced search function of a disciplinary database, you will find that it is possible to search by author, title, or subject -- as with the catalog -- but there are many other options for directing your search. Unlike search engines, database content is thoughtfully selected for relevance and then usually assigned subject tags so that you can find useful articles based on content more than simple word matches. There are also usually many more limiters than available with a search engine or catalog, often including a way for you to select only “peer reviewed” scholarly works. 

One challenge with a disciplinary database is that much of its content requires some familiarity with the advanced vocabulary and concepts of the discipline. This works fine for students majoring in that subject. If you are new to it, though, you may want to consult a reference work -- like a subject encyclopedia or dictionary -- as you read. A second challenge is that, for interdisciplinary topics, you may need to search in a couple of different disciplinary databases to consider different approaches to the same subject. Finally, new users may initially feel overwhelmed by the options available in a robust database.

Of course, the last challenge is also a strength. Disciplinary databases give you more control over your search, by offering specific subject tags, search features, and results limiters. You just have to become familiar with using those options. One particularly important feature is the limiter for scholarly, peer-reviewed sources; many university assignments require that you only use this kind of information so having an easy way to collect those sources exclusively is really helpful. 

Finally, when doing research for a course in your major, you read the work of scholars who share certain methods, theories, concerns, vocabulary, and scholarly forms. These shared features are common throughout the disciplinary database and its contents, so the more you use it, the more familiar you become with the scholarly community of your major. 

Video 5: Search Tools ~ Discovery Tools

If a disciplinary database is the search tool you choose for the “deep dive” into the research of a specific discipline, then we can think of a discovery tool as the system for “casting a wide net”. The discovery tool is usually set up to search multiple library search tools at once.

Monroe Library’s discovery tool is called “Quick Search,” and it is the default search on the library home page. It searches the library catalog and most (but not all) of our databases at the same time. The main Quick Search, similar to the catalog, allows us to search by keyword, title, or author; however, we do have the option to select an “Advanced Quick Search,” where the search options look more like those of the disciplinary database.

The challenges of using Quick Search lie in the tool’s power to search widely. First, because it mingles the contents of the catalog and many databases, its results lists are long and complex. It is possible for a simple search to yield millions of “hits” and for those results to include varied disciplines (criminal justice, music, and chemistry, for example), popular and scholarly sources, and all our available formats. As with Google, the ranging volume of results can overwhelm, producing information overload. Second, while searching multiple databases may sound efficient, the fact that different disciplines use different subject tags to describe the same phenomenon can lead us to miss many sources only because we haven’t discovered the right language to type into the search box. For example, if you search with the scientific name for something, your results will be over-represented by the scientific databases. As a result, you may need to turn to specific disciplinary databases to double-check your research.

Its strengths are related, of course. First, Quick Search makes it easier to find books and scholarly articles with the same search tool. Second, for classes outside your major, like a Loyola Core course, or possibly for assignments requiring interdisciplinary research, Quick Search might be a good tool for finding what is out there in various disciplines. Again, think of it as a “wide net”; use it for those situations when you need to explore many widely different sources on a subject, rather than for projects where it is better to go straight to the most relevant disciplinary scholarship. 

Remember two things: (1) Always ask your instructor what sorts of sources they prefer for an assignment and (2) a liaison librarian is always available to help you with your research projects. 

Module 2 Quiz