on search resilience…

This weekend I looked at my Google Calendar and at the top the column for Monday, November 25, 2019, there was a reminder, “AISL Blog Post.”

Panic ensued and I started a few different drafts for posts on things that have been happening here in our library program. Among the possibilities:

  • Our visit to a newly built K-8 library at a school down the street from us.
  • Programming ideas I gathered from visits to 2 academic libraries here in Honolulu.
  • A gathering of Honolulu independent school librarians hosted by AISL librarian, Clarissa Sin over at her library.
  • New ideas we’ve been floating to create more information literacy and digital literacy instruction opportunities in our curriculum.
  • Working with other independent school libraries to partner with our public school libraries (we’re one statewide school system) on consortial pricing for database subscriptions.
  • A lesson that I did with a 10th grade U.S. History class where most of my demonstration searches failed.

It’s very, very weird to me, but of all of the posts that I have written for Independent Ideas over the years, the posts that seem to drive the most engagement from blog readers have been the ones where I’ve written about, lessons that have failed; feeling like I don’t know what the heck I am doing on a daily basis and having to pretend that do; and posts that essentially were long lists of questions that I wished I had answers to, but didn’t. Based on that (admittedly weird) criteria, what follows is my post about the day I modeled bad searching for 10th graders and lived…

The Context…

Our 9th and 10th grade social studies classes incorporate National History Day research as one of their projects for the year. The NHD theme changes from year to year. This year’s theme is “Breaking Barriers.” We are fortunate, here, in that teachers incorporating NHD research have either worked with us in the past and feel comfortable working on the research process with their students on their own or are willing to bring their classes for multiple 85-minute research periods over the course of the project.

I used to prep for my one-shot library lessons by taking a topic related to students’ assignments, searching databases and books, and demonstrating what the perfect search would look like for students. I never really thought much about the process. I had one single period to show kids where to search, how to search, and had to do that quickly and efficiently so that kids had class time to try some in-class searching and research. You just gotta do what you gotta do…

Over the last few years, we have almost completely eliminated the one-shot library lesson. One-shot library lessons make librarians work REALLY, REALLY HARD and, realistically, don’t result in much return on investment in the form of students learning new concepts and/or students learning and being able to thoughtfully apply new research skills. We found ourselves in a chicken and egg quandary. Our schedule was so heavily booked with one-shot lessons that we had no time to book classes for multiple sessions over the course of a projects. We took a risk and began only booking library lesson sessions if teachers could find time to bring students in multiple times over the course of a project. What we’ve found, is that doing instruction with students multiple times on the same project allows us to model a more authentic research process.

With some of our NHD project classes, we met with classes for:

  • “Presearching” Day – The process of exploring topic possibilities BEFORE one actually chooses a topic.
  • Research Day 1 – An in-class research day when we had an opportunity to introduce sources and do one-on-one reference searching with students in class as needed.
  • Research Day 2 – For many kids, the point in their research when they actually try to develop a thesis statement and learn that they have major holes in their research that they need to fill.
  • Citation/Annotation Day – A day set aside for students to take preformatted database citations from their notes pages and drop them into NoodleTools and write up their OPVL annotations.

The Ill Fated Search Lesson…

Without really realizing it, over the last few years I stopped prepping for library classes by building a perfect search. Somewhere along the line, I started showing up to class an asking students, “So… What’s your topic? What keywords have you been using for that topic? Where have you been searching to find stuff?”

In a recent research day 2 class with U.S. History 10th graders, a teacher asked me to show kids how they might search for primary sources in our databases. Students knew what primary sources were and why they needed to find them, so our focus in class was on the searching strategies and tools.

In this particular class, a 10th grader volunteered Tim Berners-Lee.

Me in my head: “Easy-peasy!!! Gale High School… Search… Point to the “Primary Source” source type… Done!”

Me in real-life: Searches Gale High School… No primary sources…

Me to class (said like Homer Simpson): “D’oh! No primary sources! listed! Now, if this dude invented the Worldwide Web, do we really think there’ll be no primary sources from or about him? No way, right?!?!?!”

Tries search in ABC-CLIO… #Fails

Tries search in EBSCO History Reference Center… #Fails

Me (feeling rather like Homer Simpson…) stands and shrugs knowing that there ARE primary sources to be found and a search strategy to be had , but unable to unlock the magical strategy in the moment…

Me to class: “Uh… Sometimes you get stuck and your searching is sucky and ugly, but that’s just the way it goes. Right now I just need a minute because my brain is stuck in a thinking rut so does someone else have another topic and maybe we’ll come back to Tim in a couple of minutes…

Lovely as they are, my class took great joy (basically, they laughed at me as I dug myself in deeper and deeper with each failed search… LOL!!!) in my inability to find us some primary sources in our very expensive databases

Mercifully, Elizabeth Cady Stanton was up next and I was able to demo looking for source types, filtering a results list for “documents”, and other fancy-schmancy search strategies that you probably wouldn’t know if you were a typical14-year old human.

When we came back to Tim we chatted about what a primary source for Tim Berners-Lee might look like since, in the words of 10th graders, “the dude’s still alive, right?” My kids hit on searching for Tim as an AUTHOR with which we found success and found that [Tim Berners-Lee] and the contextualizing term [interview] worked for us as well.

Silk Purses from Sows’ Ears…

At the end of class, I apologized to the teacher for the rough search outing to which she replied, “That was, maybe, the best lesson on problem-solving on searching we’ve ever had… Kid’s need to know that research isn’t all clean and neat and pretty so today was great!”

Sometimes, all you gotta do to have a good lesson is to show up, do your authentic best, keep smiling, and be willing to tell kids in your orbit, “Sorry, folks! I do a lot of searching and, hey, on some days my searches still suck that’s just the way it goes. The thing is, though, it’s not HOW UGLY it was on the way to finding what we needed, but that we just kept at it until we FOUND WHAT WE NEEDED.”

I tweeted about my search adventure and AISL librarian Corey Baker labeled it #SearchResilience which comes off the tongue quite a bit better than #SearchFail so let’s just go with that!


It is Thanksgiving holiday week for those of us based in U.S. schools. Wherever you are, however, please know that the amazing community that is AISL, is one of the things for which I am grateful each and everyday of my professional life!

Thank you, all! ❤️

3 thoughts on “on search resilience…

  1. Thank you for sharing this! It’s so important for students (and faculty) to see that not every search yields the perfect result. Happy Thanksgiving!

  2. This has happened to all of us and I agree that “the fail” is a terrific way to model authentic searching- changing key words, sources, modifying query until problem solving results in success! Will share this hashtag w my students!#SearchResilience
    Thanks for another great post!

  3. Yes! I love this! I think when students see us do it “right” on the first try they end up really frustrated when it doesn’t come that easily to them. It takes confidence to “fail” in front of students that way, but the lesson and the learning is so much richer for it.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *