Barbara A. Williams, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
How do we get students to come in and talk with us about their research? I am sure many librarians on the instruction frontlines have contemplated that question. The purpose of this discourse is to explain how face2face instruction sessions on controlled vocabulary leads to opportunities to introduce other research tips and tools. The allure of finding that one special single search box that will explore multiple databases, at the speed of light, is enticing to the rookie academic researcher. There are a number of vendors trying to fulfill the single box expectation evidenced by the rush to create more and better discovery tools. Yet, the results of a given search are only as fruitful as the relevant terms used in the query. Thus guiding users to understand and be able to identify a databases’ controlled vocabulary, in addition to producing better searches can pave the way to introduce and teach other useful library resources.
Graduate advisors in the Aeronautics and Astronautics (AeroAstro) department at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology are encouraged by their department to introduce their new students to the term, controlled vocabulary. In some instances the introduction of controlled vocabulary as a search method is referred to the AeroAstro librarian to explain and demonstrate. These one-to-one instruction and demonstration sessions are scheduled in one-hour slots. However, it does not require an hour to explain the ins and outs of controlled vocabulary as that can be successfully done in about fifteen minutes, and when it is done well the result is a positive learning experience. Positive learning experiences seem to peak students’ curiosity about other research tips, which usually accounts for the other forty-five minutes.
My one-to-one instruction sessions on controlled vocabulary begin with a conversation about the term, designated driver, which in 1991 “became a household phrase in the United States” according to the Harvard Alcohol Project1. The discussion begins with a question that aims to find out what parents told their teenagers about drinking and driving in the 1950’s. Inevitably while answering the question, the term “designated driver” is mentioned to which I say, “although the concept existed in the 50’s the term was not in America’s vernacular.” The ensuing discussion usually consists of how people find information in budding fields when they are not privy to the lingo specialist use. After such a discussion I follow up with a hands on activity with the Library of Congress Subject Headings (LCSH).
In my office I have two volumes from an old edition of LCSH, one covers the A’s and the other covers the S’s, and yes I routinely use them. I also let the students take a gander at the books too, and to their surprise the suggested list of search terms under their various topics and subject headings are more extensive than they imagined. Next, without fail, the students pull out their cell phones to take pictures of the list of suggested search terms, which is so efficient. Searching the Library of Congress Subject headings may seem somewhat outdated but students appear to find it extremely helpful, often inquiring about other such research game changers.
Needless to say, by the time we start poking around in the thesaurus of a particular online database, students are already on board, in terms of when it is to their advantage to search using controlled vocabulary. This activity is usually followed up with a brief conversation on precision searching versus free-text searching.
I often find that the “researcher’s story” of why they are looking for specific information, gets in their way of constructing useful search terms. So while the initial invitation is to come in and learn about controlled vocabulary, in the first few minutes it becomes apparent that we need to spend some time reviewing how to eliminate the “noise” in their “story” by which I mean eliminating unnecessary verbiage. Typically, the student brings in a paragraph explaining their research but once we get to the heart of the matter we end up with one sentence in which we can isolate useful key terms to search.
Of course once we start to plug in terms and the student starts to find information I ask, “what citation package will be used to store, sort and organize the information captured from your search?” As you can see one thing leads to another e.g., will you be using figures in your document? If so, this is what you need to know… Helping users understand how to identify a database’s controlled vocabulary typically can lead to a brief overview of a library’s resources and services. More importantly it begins a necessary conversation, which looks at gathering information as an informed process.
1Winsten, Jay A. (2000). “The Harvard Alcohol Project: Promoting the “Designated Driver””. In Suman, Michael; Rossman, Gabriel. Advocacy Groups and the Entertainment Industry.