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To Bangkok Conference programme

65th IFLA Council and General

Bangkok, Thailand,
August 20 - August 28, 1999

Code Number: 081-143-E
Division Number: VII
Professional Group: Information Technology
Joint Meeting with: -
Meeting Number: 143
Simultaneous Interpretation:   Yes

Success - structured search strategy:
information retrieval in the age of global information systems

Chaim Zins
University of Haifa
Haifa, Israel


Information searching is a sequence of interrelated actions. Every action determines the course of the searching, and thus affects its final result. Consequently, the searcher's reasoning is a key to the success of the searching process. Therefore, it is essential to educate professional librarians and information experts, as well as lay searchers, to adopt structured search strategies that are based on rational preplanned searching procedures and techniques. Success is a strategy for structured searching. It is based on the principle of planning the search according to four successive components: What, Where, Words, and Wow - the Working method. Phrase what you search. Locate where to search. Select search-words, and use the working method. (This might invoke the "wow" - "That's a wow".)


Information literacy.

The intensive development of information technologies accelerates the development of sophisticated information systems that expand the human horizon. We live in an age of global information systems, accessible by the Internet. Yet utilizing these innovations requires basic knowledge and proficiency. Information literacy seems to be an essential requisite at the start of the new millennium.

Trial and error.

Most people seek information using "blind search" methods. Such searches are usually executed - when implemented in the Worldwide Web - by the searcher typing a query in one of the popular search engines, AltaVista, Yahoo, and the like. Very often, these searches end up with one "big zero" or with the "stunning success" of thousands of useless results - much ado about nothing. Computer technology has made us extremely impatient. We desperately need information. But we eagerly want to have it here and now. Therefore, not surprisingly, we usually get plenty of nothing. The congestion of irrelevant and useless information is overwhelming.

Systematic searching.

The frequent frustrations create a genuine need for systematic searching, based on systematic search techniques. This is true for all kinds of users - professionals, students, and the general public, for all kinds of information - commercial, educational, and scientific, and all forms of information searching - via cyberspace and in the real world. Unquestionably, the Internet appears as the ultimate implementation of the notion of globalization. Yet very often we tend to ignore other major resources. Despite its leading status, the Internet is only one of the numerous resources available to literate people.

Information searching is a sequence of interrelated actions, each of which determines the course of the searching and thus affects its final result. Consequently, the searcher's reasoning is the key to the success of the searching process. Professional librarians and information experts, as well as lay searchers must therefore be educated to adopt structured search strategies that are based on rational preplanned searching procedures and techniques.

Four Ws for exhaustive searching.

Success is a strategy for structured searching1. It is based on the principle of planning the search according to four successive components: What, Where, Words, and Wow - the Working method. Phrase what you search. Locate where to search. Select search-words, and use the working method. (This might invoke the "wow" - "That's a wow".)

What. Phrasing the search assignment is aimed at focusing the search by specifying the needed information. The process of phrasing compels the searcher to define the needed knowledge (or in most cases the needed information) in terms of distinct search assignments. It enables him/her to divide complex tasks into specified lists of achievable assignments.

Where. The search assignment prescribes the potential resources. For instance, a scientific-medical paper on cardiology is best searched for in the Medline database, not in AltaVista. If one needs to know the life expectancy in India, one should search in the CIA World Factbook, not in Yahoo. And one can find the address of a department store in Manhattan in the New York City's Yellow Pages, not in Excite. Still, AltaVista, Yahoo, and Excite are excellent for locating Medline, the CIA World Factbook, and New York City's Yellow Pages on the net.

Locating potential resources might be easy for experienced searchers who are familiar with the relevant subject matter. Yet the real challenge is to locate information resources when the subject matter is new to the searcher. In these common cases the search becomes a two-phase assignment. First, the searcher has to locate relevant resources, using structured search techniques. Then he/she can proceed to execute the primary assignment proper.

Words. The search-words affect result precision. They should induce adequate results, namely not too broad and not too narrow. Selecting suitable words requires some basic knowledge and skills. The searcher should properly characterize the needed information, based on subject-related terminology. He/she should correctly spell the search-words, using printed or computerized desk reference sources (e.g. dictionaries, spelling checkers, glossaries, and thesauri). Proficient information retrieval frequently involves the use of professional thesauri. Examples are MeSH for medical information, ERIC's thesaurus for educational information, and the Library of Congress Subject Headings and Roget's Thesaurus for general information.

The working method. The working method depends on certain conditions (e.g., the features of the search tools or the resources, the nature of the assignment, the searcher's expertise, etc.) Generally, there are two basic methods of information retrieval on the Internet: browsing and typing a query. Note, however, that hypertext and hypermedia formats allow two kinds of browsing connectivity: 'occasional' and structured. Occasional browsing is based on associative links; structured browsing is usually utilized in hierarchical lists.

Structured browsing is implemented in classified directories, while, typing a query is implemented in search engines. However, the ongoing changing nature of the Internet necessitates a clarification. Most search tools consist of both types, a directory and a search engine, and enable users to choose between browsing through hierarchical classifications and typing queries.

In general, it is preferable to use a classified directory when the information is related to a specific topic. It is more advisable to use a search engine when the needed information is simultaneously related to several topics, when the topic is unclear, or when the user is searching for a specific item (e.g., a person, an organization, a publication) by its name.

Use of classified directories requires the searcher to adjust his/her terminology to that used in the directory. Note that the major directories are designed for American users; for them, the "kicking ball game" in Europe (and the rest of the world) is soccer, not football. On the other hand, using search engines requires the searcher to phrase a query in a way that best utilizes the search techniques, supported by the engine (e.g., keyword searching, free text searching, Boolean searching, field searching, meta-searching, truncation). In addition, the user has to learn the engine's user-interface and the syntax for phrasing a query.

Structured search strategy.

As one can see, in most cases successful information retrieval is the product of systematic thinking rather than mastering technology. Information literacy means internalizing structured search strategies as well as technological mastery. This is the cornerstone of the Success strategy.

Scientific validity.

The Success strategy was developed in 1995. It is based on field observations and structured interviews with students, professional librarians, and information specialists. Currently, this strategy is being reviewed through scientific research based on the Delphi method. This is a qualitative study consisting of three rounds of structured interviews with 15 professional information specialists.

The panel covers a large variety of fields, including aerospace, business, chemistry, cyber culture and Internet, education, electronics and high-tech, health and medicine, information technologies, patent searching, science, technology, and general information. The participants work in academic and scientific institutions, government and public information centers, educational R&D centers, industrial and high-tech companies, and commercial information and Internet services. They serve all kinds of clients, e.g., in-house employees, paying customers, students, and the general public.

The panelists have been asked to critically analyze the strategy's rationale, evaluate the basic components (i.e., guidelines, forms, tables, etc.), and discuss implications for user education, information personnel education, and information system development.

The Delphi research methodology provides the means to conduct in-depth structured peer discussions, while protecting the discussants' anonymity. The anonymity is aimed at neutralizing group pressures, while confronting peer debates and controversies. The first questionnaire consisted of 23 exhaustive questions covering all aspects of the strategy. The second questionnaire is based on a critical analysis of the 15 interviews. The panelists were required to consider the various evaluations, suggestions, and positions expressed by the group and to re-answer the major questions. In the third questionnaire the participants will be asked to summarize and conclude the evaluation. The study is due to be concluded in mid-May 1999. However, preliminary findings confirm the rationale and the fundamentals of the strategy.


1. Hebrew and English versions of the success strategy can be found at: www.success.co.il.


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