Show me your search strings!

What can search statistics tell us about user behaviour? Librarians at the University of Tromsø, Norway analysed over 20,000 searches to find answers.

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The zero results effect

For the hordes of our users that have become accustomed to always getting some kind of answer to their searches, the brutal meeting with a library database can be very problematic. Probably more so for the library than for the user, since the library has invested a lot of resources into getting products with quality content. A few failed searches will easily send the user back to Google. How can we provide a good search service and make it simple enough for anyone to use?

Who is the expert?

First of all it is important to realize that searching is a complex operation. Like any other skill, it needs practice and training. This is quite a dilemma in modern libraries. We want our users to be skilled searchers and we want them to use the products provided by the library. On the other hand, most of our library patrons are not necessarily skilled searchers and don’t see any reason why they should be. (If they are at all aware of their lacking search efficiency.)

Should the library provide the actual searching for the patrons, or is it simply more cost efficient to increase focus on user instruction? So far, the debate has leaned heavily on the second solution. With library systems becoming increasingly user friendly (we hope) it is quite difficult to see how we could persuade library patrons to learn more about searching. To justify spending a large part of the library budget on databases that users find difficult or even unnecessary requires us to sit down and properly discuss the library’s role in information searching and how to best assist students and staff in their research process.

Mariann Lokse is subject librarian at University of Tromsø, Norway.  Mona Magnussen is senior librarian at University of Tromsø, Norway. They presented their findings at Internet Librarian International 2013.

Image courtesy of Public Domain Photos via Flickr.

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