Literature Searching for Library School Students

Note: This is appropriate for library school students.

by Moya K. Mason


Learning how to systematically search for information has always been a particularly important aspect of a librarian's job, but especially over the last few decades with the great increase in academic scholarship and a parallel explosion in information. In the middle of this stands the librarian, labelled an information connoisseur, who can sift through all the information to find what the patron is looking for. With the increase in the number of online indexes and databases in libraries, and the Internet, librarians are expected to have knowledge of them so they can help the public with online searching. Consequently, getting practice on a CD-ROM product such as Wilson's Library Literature is a very good place to get some experience in systematic literature searching.

The Initial Step

The first thing was to look at the given topic and think about all its different aspects. In this case, it was 'you are a collections librarian in an academic library, and you need to find some recent material on the effects of the economy on book publishing.' Having done quite a number of courses at the library school, I was familiar with the problems collection development librarians face with the fluctuations in the currency market and issues surrounding the escalation in scholarly book prices, so I decided to search the print version of Library Literature to find relevant controlled vocabulary/subject headings used for the topic. Believing it to be a question of economics, the print index was checked under that heading, but there was very little of interest under that category, finding finance to be much more useful. Publishers and publishing, with its sub-headings of book industry, publisher-library relations, and scholarly publishing was considered another good place to check when in the browse mode of the database. Some other key subject headings used include books/prices, scholarly publishing/finance, research libraries/finance, surveys/budgets, and acquisitions. One problem was how to eliminate all articles concerning the escalation of journal prices in academic libraries that would surely come up, since that is one of the main conundrums facing academic collection development librarians today. The other thing that had to be kept in mind was the currency of the materials chosen, since the task was to provide only recent articles on the topic. With the key concepts and subject headings identified, the search strategy had to be planned.

Search Strategy: The Troubles Begin

The search strategy was to use the browse mode of Library Literature to find some good articles on the topic, and look at the controlled vocabulary as a way to sift out or deduce what other controlled vocabulary might be used within the parameters of the subject. By using the subject search or browse mode and inputting the controlled vocabulary found in the print version of the database, some good hits came up, along with some articles that were way off topic. For instance, since the indexers had used the heading of scholarly publishing for almost every article about academic libraries, the serials crisis and how faculty must publish or perish, along with many other topics, came up in the search. The term was bringing up articles that were not wanted. The same type of thing happened when using finance, which brought up related hits on every possible aspect of financial management for libraries.

The next step was to use the 'command' mode for the remainder of the search. Many different combinations of words using truncation and boolean operators were employed to bring up a good array of citations, but most failed. Problems occurred every time information on libraries other than academic ones were weeded out, so it was decided that by using the word 'scholarly' in the search would give the best and most hits on the interested topic. Over a period of many hours, failure loomed. As soon as one seemed to focus in on the proper terms and get close to completing the exercise, the search would prove to be a failure. It was decided that the words finance, scholarly, publishing, books, and prices had to appear in some order to obtain the necessary information. Finally, with much help, consideration, and manipulation of terms, a fairly comprehensive list of citations were retrieved that had relevant information and were current. Eliminators were then used to weed out another ten citations.

A Few Good Articles

Moore, Terence W. 1993. Believe it or Not, Academic Books are a Bargain. Scholarly Publishing 24:161-5.

Ketterman, Kathleen J. 1996. Hard Issues Between Soft Covers. Against the Grain 8:50-55.

Wagner, Celia Scher. 1996. Statistics for the Academic Book Trade: Average and Medium Book Prices. Against the Grain 8:56-7.

The above articles are very good reading if you are interested in the economic effects on the book industry in connection with academic libraries, as are many of the others that came up in my search. However, there are invariably some bad hits or unwanted citations that come up in any search for a variety of reasons. In this case, an article about Texaco is off topic, as is the one on a Japanese award that came up because it had the subject heading scholarly publishing/finance, which could not be eliminated. Many others were eliminated by using a restriction for year to allow for currency. Weeding of articles about electronic publishing and the serials crisis at academic libraries was handled by using the boolean operator not with truncation for the words journal, serials, and electronic. Sometimes you just can't remove all the misses without losing some of the most important citations.


One thing that this exercise really made me aware of was the specialization of materials in library journals. Most of the articles focusing directly on the economic issues surrounding building library collections today are in Against the Grain, Publishers Weekly, and Scholarly Publishing. One of the articles looked particularly interesting, but the journal is not collected within the UWO library system. That's where the importance of interlibrary loan and document delivery are felt. Conducting different searches allows the librarian to notice trends in the literature. Certain kinds of information will usually appear in only a few, specialized journals, which usually means very high prices for subscriptions. This is particularly true of scientific publications, which are considered to be very focused.

Although this exercise was very difficult to do, it made me realize that our main task as librarians is to keep on sifting through the colossal amounts of available information for our patrons to make sure they find what is appropriate for their needs. By using numerous combinations to access the best articles, I realized that there may not be one correct way to uncover materials. Librarians can use independent thought along with proper procedures in searching, and the more search strategies they try, the better they become at using databases such as Library Literature. Underlying the entire process is the need to know the boolean operators and how to use them appropriately in a search, and to understand that in information retrieval, the use of truncation is an invaluable tool, as are search limiters. Putting aside the difficulties and frustrations involved in this exercise, I consider it an important lesson learned.

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