Librarians have taught information literacy skills to students ever since Mr. Dewey invented his classification scheme. With varying degrees of success, kids have learned to navigate around their libraries’ meticulously crafted bibliographic databases and catalogs. They pick their way through arcane subject headings, decipher terse catalog records, and decode cryptic citations in the Readers’ Guide to Periodical Literature.

When the first CD-ROM encyclopedias arrived in libraries and homes, elaborate and procedure-bound lessons no longer seemed quite so necessary. Kids could search by subject category or type in commonly used phrases to find what they wanted. Every word of the encyclopedia was searchable. The availability of multiple search methods fed students’ natural inclinations toward trial-and-error strategies.

A slew of electronic information tools followed the CD-ROM encyclopedias. DOS-style, fee-based online database searching services never really had a chance in schools, once CD-ROM periodical databases appeared, sporting friendlier menu-driven interfaces. The menus were then superseded by graphical interfaces to both bibliographic and full-text database products, delivered online or on CD-ROM.

Library skills instruction followed these developments, redefining itself with each new turn. Even so, the pedagogical fundamentals have remained the same–to teach students to define their information needs, formulate strategies for searching, evaluate the results of their searches, and synthesize new knowledge.

Students have made a seemingly easy transition to web searching. They have found the same liberating choices of search methods, with options for full-text key word searching and hierarchical topic searching. Unlike many bibliographic database searches, kids always experience some level of success when they search the web.

But do they get it? Do they select appropriate search strategies or just settle for the first hits that appear? Do they recognize the fact that not all search engines work the same way and that even the same search engine might be reconfigured the next time they use it?

What happens when students move between web searching and “traditional” library database and catalog searching? Once kids have experienced full-text searching, they have a difficult time going back to a system that employs selective indexing with controlled vocabulary. It is hard to grasp that the entire contents of a book will only be represented by three or so precisely coined subject headings.

Instead, students tend to search at the wrong level of specificity. While they typically understand that they can type “recipes for peanut butter cookies” using an internet search engine, the more abstract strategies for searching in book catalogs and periodical indexes are elusive and unintuitive.

Conceptually, searchers must move to a higher level of abstraction and look up “cookies” or even “cook books.” Even then, in a book catalog they must enter a sanctioned subject heading, which, in this case, is “cookery.”

What knowledge base do school librarians need if they are to be successful teachers in this volatile and complicated environment? Here are some prescriptions designed to encourage both sanity and competence:

  • Don’t feel that you have to know absolutely everything there is to know about web searching. Library search tools might be complex, but they are stable and consistent, generally guided by unifying principles. Web search tools, on the other hand, are guided by no single hand. The rules for search syntax change daily. Instead of “learning” the rules, it makes more sense to scan help screens on the fly. Take advantage of what others have done before you, such as consulting the many search engine guides that are already available on the web.
  • Don’t feel dismayed by the students who seem to know more than you do. They have more time than librarians do to hone their web-searching skills. Instead, draw on their expertise and remember that their knowledge might be wide, but it is also can be shallow. You will still be needed to help them see the big picture.
  • Do know your own domain. Have a solid understanding of the bibliographic tools of the trade, such as the Sears or Library of Congress Subject Headings. Have a firm grasp of how catalog records are structured and queried. Understand how your database providers’ products work. Know what fields are being searched, and what is going on in the background that affects search outcomes and is not apparent in the interface.