Electronic Eye April 2011
Have you noticed their love affair with natural language searching? Lately it seems that every request typed into a search engine seems to begin with the words “what” or “why.” As in, “Why does baking soda and vinegar produce gas?” or the potentially futile, “What are the amusements of Ancient China?” This natural language searching does lead to a lot of information found on question and answer sites like Answers.com, which is also a very interesting walk on the wild side of user-created content.
My second discovery is their decision to start with an image search over a text search. I don’t mean that they are looking for clip art or pictures to pretty up a presentation; I mean they look for images when they are first learning about a new idea. They just seem to slip over there, curious about what will come up.
My third intriguing trend is the most challenging of all. Young researchers don’t always recognize when a piece of information actually fits their information need. I’ve frequently seen them reject something that to my eye looks completely pertinent to their research need. When asked to explain their thought process, they are hard pressed to express exactly why. Sometimes hear that it looks too hard to understand. When asked what would make it more easily understandable, they sometimes explain that they need larger text or headings that lead their eye to the right answer and, definitely, more images.
Some of these trends can be counteracted with greater instruction and I do see short term gains when I offer education. I also have to say that they are very confident in their own abilities to wrestle with research. I am more successful, however, when I am able to pair good instruction with a quality online resource that offers users a searching experience that works for them.
And what works for them is all about what the eye finds first.
That is why I’m so excited about ProQuest Online‘s new platform. It’s a complete overhaul and is in direct response to the changing expectations about the research experience. But how well is it tailored to the trends that I see going on with today’s young adult researcher? I’m going to focus my attention on how it addresses some of the characteristics of young adult researchers that I mentioned at the beginning of this column.
ProQuest Direct on the Web was established in 1996, over fifteen years ago, and quickly became the “can’t live without” online resource for all types of libraries, with good reason. The content draws from scholarly journals, as well as magazines and all kinds of newspapers; a good portion of it available in full text and occasionally in pdfs of the page view. The packaging of the content into different database collections allowed institutions to choose a product that would meet their needs and also be affordable. A robust search interface would allow users access to all of it.
Granted, a database this large needed careful searching, and I learned that sometimes the best searching was done after a user learned the field codes or how to fill out the advanced search form so that they were limiting the database effectively. All of this limiting and learning made the search interface look clunky.
This new overhaul has a new home screen with a much cleaner look. There’s a dark blue navigation bar at the top and only two gray boxes centered in the screen. The first box is a nice long search box. It is so long it looks almost as if it wants someone to type in a question. There are only two small check boxes added below, hardly cluttering up the screen but giving users the opportunity to limit by both scholarly articles and full-text articles. There’s also a tiny little link to the advanced search functionality.
But do they REALLY want us to type in a question using natural language?
Well, you certainly can. In fact they will even give you suggestions based on what you are typing into the search box. Although the initial suggestions popping up seem a little too quirky to me. I started to type in “Where is,” and the suggestions for finishing my thought included, “Where is Atlantis,” “Where is God,” and “Dude, where is my car?” The suggestions do get more helpful the more words you type in, of course.
More useful are the suggested subjects box that populates with search term suggestions after you hit the return key. This is powered by something called “ProQuest Smart Search.” In addition to helping a user create a more functional search, it also models choosing better keywords. I can use that to help my young adults become more search savvy.
Below the search box are ten broad subject areas that users can click on. Each subject area is represented by an image. Most are rather generic pictures, such as hands holding copies of the New York Times and Wall Street Journal to represent “News and Issues” or a wind farm to represent “Science and Technology.” A photo of Leonardo diCaprio represents “Arts and Humanities.” Interesting choice.
Hovering over these images pulls up a list of the databases that a library subscribes to which are available under that subject. For my institution, “Arts and Humanities” is covered by Alt-PressWatch, EthnicNewsWatch, and three different versions of ProQuest Direct (Discovery, Gold, Platinum, and Research Library.)
Clicking on a broad subject will allow a user to either search within those specific databases or choose one particular database to search within. Each database has a brief description paired with some images that can help a researcher get a sense of what’s covered in a visual way. For instance, Alt-Press Watch has images that include the anarchist symbol and pictures of Punks, Goths and peace activists. All of this is meant to help convey the idea that the AltPress Watch database features articles first published in over 210 alternative and independent papers, including the Village Voice.
Searching within a specific database is a very good strategy for managing such a large resource, so I’m glad that this functionality is well showcased. The navigation bar at the very top always clearly indicates how many databases a searcher is accessing.
But can you still use field codes like TI for title and AU for author? Yes. Just look around until you find a link to command line syntax.
Once a person has found an entry that is particularly useful, there is a “More like this . . . see similar items” box on the right of the screen. This is genius and seems to work very well. The similar items were truly similar in terms of subject and also type of information source. The search results page also pulls out the images that are embedded in an article and shows them below the brief citation. While the thumbnail images are rather small and many of them are tables, charts, and diagrams, it still appeals to the eye of my young adult researchers.
The interface also comes with the the opportunity for storing articles and sharing them with others. These tools are the section called “My Research” and is powered by RefWorks. Any user can create an account and can log into their “My Research” section once they have logged onto the site. This is also the place where users can create RSS feeds to watch for new content and even widgets that can be embedded into a user’s home page. I created a few widgets to embed into my Web portal and found that you could tailor the look of the widget as well as the databases to search.
And then there’s Facebook, Twitter, and the like. Users have the ability to share any article they find interesting with their social network as well.
Almost all of which I was hoping for in this overhaul was anticipated by ProQuest and has become a reality. While it is still a large database and will always have a learning curve, I think that it will be a much easier sell to my young adult researchers and I’m hoping that it will help them learn better methods of searching as well.
Maybe ProQuest was watching over the shoulders of my young adult researchers too?
After working for eight years as head librarian at Marymount School of New York in New York City, Kathleen Meulen is now a librarian for the Bainbridge Island School District in Washington state. Please e-mail comments to email@example.com.