Hi, all! I was working on a different blog post entirely, but had two conversations with other school librarians yesterday about teaching database searching, so thought I would continue my thinking here. More than anything, I like checking my thinking – so, hoping we can converse (in comments or with me directly by email). Push back, please. We are definitely stronger together!
While my students respond very positively to my lesson on database business models as systemic injustice (which also explains why we value databases and how they can allow us to access voices that search engine algorithms don’t surface), lessons on the actual using of databases is much less of a love-fest. I’ve experimented with different formats over the years.
In essence, I have found that teaching a “click here, now click there” lesson is boring for both me and for them. While I love seeing students go to their happy place, I don’t love it so much during instruction. For a while, I experimented with not teaching how to use databases, at all. Just telling students to go for it… Either way, I got the exact same comment: “We never learned how to do this.”
So, I’ve finally arrived at the basic concepts that students need to use most databases. My biggest interest is teaching them to feel empowered to open any database and give it a try.
I really think that 95% of database searching is search term selection and has nothing to do with the database itself. I spend a lot more time on that skill, which is broadly applicable.
My database lessons cover four points, period.
1. Use Advanced Search in databases. They all work basically the same way, but require us to type stuff in slightly differently from each other if you are just suing the single search box. Memorize them all OR just click on that advanced search link. It looks basically the same in almost every database. Learn to manage this interface with basic skill and you can search almost any database competently.
2. The bottom half of most advanced search pages tend to focus on the strengths/purpose of that database. Access World News has a map search, to limit by geography; ARTSTOR has limiters for time and medium; JSTOR offers narrowing by discipline of journals to be searched. So, limit your search terms in the top half as much as you can, and make use of the filters in the bottom half that relate to your topic (ex: don’t use [art history] as a search term in JSTOR, just look for [japan AND gender] and then click on the Art History box to search discipline-specific writings).
3. Similarly, keep the advanced search portion as light as possible, click “search” and use the filters on the left side of the results page (usually, though sometimes on the right) to narrow further. Easier to experiment, play around, see what happens.
4. Databases are not flexible, they look for exactly what you type in. Use * to help. (Note here: I used to think that stemming — e.g., using [immigra*] to look for immigrant, immigrants, immigration, etc. — was too hard and I chose not to teach it to my students. Turns out they love it and find it extremely useful.)
Ultimately, I think that the flexibility of moving from database to database is the most important element to learn. I *strongly* prefer to give students those four basic guidelines and then do a jigsaw. Give groups each one database to play with. They apply the four principles I teach, see what a specific database offers for themselves. They jigsaw and teach each other. Maybe build a communal class guide to use when searching.
This approach has definitely been the most productive for me, given that I usually have one class period (on good days) and no specific time to follow up. Though, given my druthers, “how to database” is never my go-to lesson. I do force myself to teach the lesson once in early 9th grade. The rest gets followed up in one-on-one student conversations.
I’d love to hear how you teach database lessons.