"[Finders] visualize there is something to be found, whereas searchers seem to wait and see whether something is to be found. I am convinced that having a firm belief that a relevant document exists makes it much more likely to find it."In more than a year of browsing new Library and Information Science papers on LISTA, there's no question that Nijhof's paper on information seeking styles has influenced my thinking the most. And it came from World Patent Information of all places!
— Evert Nijhof, Searching? Or actually trying to find something? – The comforts of searching versus the challenges of finding.
|Fox hunting mole, by Flickr user EricMagnuson.|
Two Useful Archetypes
After observing the way many information professionals conduct novelty (or 'patentability') searches, Nijhof came to see two major clusters of techniques and attitudes:
- focus on methodical search procedures (the journey)
- tend to start broad and then narrow
- accept customer requests at face value
- respond to failure by giving evidence of procedure following
- focus on the objective (the destination)
- tend to start narrow and then broaden
- may question whether customer requests are customer needs
- take failure personally and analyze the reason for failure
It may sound like finders are great and searchers are mediocre under this scheme. Sort of true, but Nijhof is careful to point out that being a pure finder is a problem too. There comes a point in an extended search when it should become evident that finder techniques aren't striking oil. This is when a searcher's methodical techniques begin to shine. You don't want to be the hotshot finder who overlooks the equivalent of a checklist item.
Maybe an analogy will help. Suppose your ten-year-old wanders off in a shopping mall. How would you go about looking for her? You could start searching each store in order, or you could think of the most likely places she would go and check those first. Chances are, you'll find your kid quicker with the second option. But what if you don't? Should you keep checking the 8th, 9th, and 10th most likely stores? No. Now it's time to get methodical (possibly with the help of others).
The Virtues of a Precise Start
Since this is a major detour in Nijhof's article, let's look more closely at a few of the reasons he advocates starting out with narrow rather than broad searches.
Noise — Narrow searches start with a much lower signal-to-noise ratio than broad searches. Sure, you get fewer hits, but you can spend more time thoroughly checking each hit for its own sake and for additional search vocabulary.
Knowing the Landscape — When searching broadly, it can be hard to get a sense of what's available underneath broad terms. If I'm looking for medical information on certain kinds of dogs, it helps to start by looking at the level of detail in the database on one breed of dog. Otherwise a broad search could be using a completely inappropriate set of terminology for the available sources.
Default Mindset — Starting out broad puts a searcher in an "discard unless..." mindset rather than a finder's "assume relevant unless..." mindset. The searcher approach is supposed to help avoid missing relevant hits, but training yourself to say "nope, nope, nope..." right away might actually cause you to miss an important document among the pile of irrelevancy.
I hope no one takes the terminology "searcher" vs. "finder" too seriously. I've noticed a tendency in business and academia to take two common language synonyms, use them to refer to two interesting concepts, then act like everyone else is misusing these terms if they aren't using them in the same quirky fashion.
What's important is that you think about these two clusters of search behavior as useful concepts. Now when you sit down to start a search or watch someone else start a search, you won't be able to stop from thinking about the choice of broad or narrow terminology. If you tend toward the searcher archetype, you might consider leaving your comfort zone and trying some if-this-works-I'm-done-already narrow terms. If you tend toward the finder archetype, you might remember to switch approaches when a search isn't going well, perhaps by looking up all of the citations in resources you've already found that weren't quite right.
Come to think of it, isn't the whole premise of the TV show Bones about pairing up a methodical searcher with an intuitive finder and showing how they complement each other? Oh no, the goggles won't come off!
Nijhof, E. (2011). Searching? Or actually trying to find something? – The comforts of searching versus the challenges of finding. World Patent Information, 33(4), p. 360-363.