Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Search Challenge (5/20/15): This week, a conversation about learning rapidly

This week, a conversation... 

Now that I'm not traveling, I have the chance to do something I've wanted to do for a while, and that is the chance to have a conversation with you about some parts of YOUR SearchResearch talents. 

I'm guessing that if you're reading this, you're probably one of those people who likes to look things up--that is, you're a researcher by habit or training... at least you're a researcher by inclination!   

Photo courtesy of U. Huddersley (UK) and JISC.

You might spend time in the library, or you might spend time reading old maps in the archives, perhaps you spend lots of time with Google. 

But what I'm curious about is this:  

   1.  What do you do when you need to learn about a topic area very quickly?  

I have to admit, I'm asking you now partly because I have the time this week, but also because (full disclosure) I'm giving a talk on this in a couple of weeks at the Investigative Reporters and Editors conference in Philadelphia.  

But I'm always curious about how people organize their self-teaching / self-learning behaviors.  

Here's an example of what I mean:  


Method #1: Look for groups of people interested in your topic

As I've pointed out before (SRS post on "finding the date of a globe"), the internet is remarkable for any number of reasons, but one that I rely on to learn about a topic quickly is that for any topic, there is a special interest group.  

For instance, if I'm interested in those wonderful old oak library card catalogs, I can pretty easily find a group that's interested in them (by which I mean that they know a great deal about them, they probably collect them, they know the history of the catalogs, etc.) 

One easy way to find such a group is by looking for people who have these things for sale.  Thus: 

     [ library card catalog sale ] 

takes me to the Etsy shopping space for card catalogs, a Pintrest board for them, a nice blog post, and so on. 

Or, by searching for blogs with: 

     [ library card catalog blog ] 

you can easily find more Pintrest boards (including some remarkable tattoos of card catalogs!), and--naturally--a blog post from the Library of Congress.  

And if you want to dig into a particular set of blogs, you might try: 

     [ library card catalog ] 

and find even more blogs on the topic.  


Okay.  That's one of my tips. 

Tell us one of yours!!  

Search on... 


  1. Well, I hate to admit this because I am a librarian, but if I am really stumped my first place to look is usually Wikipedia. I never rely on that alone because I know that it is not always reliable, but it often has useful links to other sites. I have also found some search terms that enabled me to structure my search more effectively. Once I had a student who was going to be interviewed for a job at a local transportation museum and had to find information on the trams in the 19th century and early part of the 20th century that were pulled by teams of horses. After searching several different ways, I found in Wikipedia that they are usually called horsecars and searching that one word led me to multiple sources of information, including the variations of "horse cars" and horse-cars. I also have access to proprietary databases, which are usually more fruitful than a straight Google search.

    1. I wouldn't be embarrassed by that! Wikipedia is (often, not always) a surprisingly good resource. In particular, following the links from Wikipedia articles is often a great way to "get into" the literature around a topic.

      And, as you correctly point out, knowing some of the lingo / language in a particular area is really important. Your story reminds me of the "gravity cars" SearchResearch challenge a while back.


  2. I think one of the top challenges we did that made us the readers sound somewhat like experts was the Comet Challenge. What I knew when I started was nothing. I said this in my answer "So what I hope to get out of this challenge is how to search a topic you don't have any knowledge about that is very technical. How does a journalist write about something the specifics of MUPUS? How do you become an expert on the subject quickly or least be able to decipher pertinent information without getting lost in the document?"

    But look at the answers and the discussions about the answers. Looking back I am very impressed by everyone’s contribution. People were able to find the information needed and we were able to analyze results to improve our understanding. To quickly summarize what I think is a very complex topic…

    Keywords are king!
    They say follow the money we ¨follow the links¨ i.e. Wikipedia is often at the top.
    Control F to scan documents quickly & other related tools to get the necessary result or even just ¨vocabulary¨. Keep list. (use synonyms, reverse dictionary etc.)
    Defining the question in order to answer. In other words if you get the right question you will build your search more efficiently. (I often rewrite the question, what is it we are trying to research?)
    Just as we keep contacts and sources we should make note of sources that may transfer to other challenges. I use Google Docs to track my progress & have it available for other searches. (or One Tab as was recently pointed out).
    Find the experts on the subject like we did with ESA. (site operator & keywords were key).

    The Question

    The Answer

    1. I tried to think of a question that might help demonstrate how one would gather a lot of facts quickly in order to give an informed answer. One that might fit the bill is Are more family pets in danger because of the elimination of the Richardson ground squirrel? .

      Some background, where I live we use to have many on our property and when driving to the city you would see many along the roadside. In the past five years I have not seen any at all.

      I haven’t done any research, just quick checks to see if any possible results.

      Using the internet want to find experts on the rodent. We would have to determine how pest management has impacted this species. [government and farming association websites]

      To make a decision to wipe out a species I would think some type of research may have been done [academic research papers]

      Is there any numbers on current versus previous population? [data research]

      Let’s consider the possibility that it isn’t pest management. Has there been a disease killing them and if so what is that impact? [government agencies, academic research, books ] (quick check on books reveals one “Prairie Dogs: Communication and Community in an Animal Society
      By C. N. Slobodchikoff, Bianca S. Perla, Jennifer L. Verdolin”)

      What can an images tell us? First by taking note of the “byline” for links to websites you may find sites not obvious. You can use advanced search to by region.

      Now going back to the question; are family pets in danger? [Newspaper search]
      (quick check -

      Why would family pets be in danger? Poison bait but what else?

      What impact on the balance of nature/food chain has eliminating the species had? [ wildlife agency websites]

      Are there less hawks and eagles in the area due to food shortage? [data research, wildlife websites]

      This search could take many turns. Maybe it’s true and maybe not. But pulling all of it together can be done quickly and give solid information.

      One other point I want to make is that using the Advanced Search feature is a powerful tool.

  3. Hello, Dr, Russell. How did your class today went?

    When doing a fast topic research, I try first searching with Google. Exception made if I know a site that can give me the answers I need. Today, many of the questions are answered with just one question. Or at least, a very good list of resources are shown.

    In many occasions, when needed to search for something and not WiFi available, my first option is still searching in books that are available there.

    Time ago, when I doing research, my approach was to start fast and move from there. Now, thanks to you, first think about different options, about possible tools and what questions could work better.

    Finally, a great tool to learn, especially when seeing is important is YouTube. That is always my first choice for those cases.

    Not sure if that answers your question. If not, please let me know.

  4. First one vanished.

    Firstly, I am a (re)searcher by inclination, mostly.

    Secondly, I have learned to slow down to achieve fast results. A local author asked me to dig up some detail on a topic. A 'fast' look showed almost nothing. I then discussed the whole with her in more detail. What she actually wanted to know was not what she asked me.

    On Challenge Wednesday I often read the Challenge and think about the various aspects during 'walkies.' Then I tackle it. Doggies can generate great insights.

    Sometimes I don't even know how to describe what I am thinking about. So I just shotgun Uncle Google til I find someone else who has wondered about the same topic: the learning the lingo approach. Its then that a community will often pop up.

    Quick look in Wikipedia may do it, often the source links alone help.

    There, a slow answer to fast knowledge.


  5. To find information about an unfamiliar topic area very quickly, I usually try to find an organization or trade association that is working on that specific area. I use keywords like industry trade group, business association, International association or sector association and combine them with the subject I’m looking for. Also limiting the search to the .org domain is very effective.
    [uv-led curing trade associations]
    [uv-led curing]

    Another option is to use a directory: eg Associations on the Net (From the Internet Public Library) -

  6. I tend to look for an authoritative guide to the subject, and then read it (or at least skim it and refer to any additional resources it suggests). Of course, this often involves 'learning the lingo' and running various Google searches (as mentioned above). I look (online) for a list of authoritative texts or articles on the subject. The trick is to find something that is still accessible to a n00b, as opposed to an expert in the field. I find you have to stay away from the esoteric at the start, or you will be in over your head and won't make any headway in actually learning the subject-matter.

  7. I know, windy, tl;dr… anyway…
    a quick, ottomh summary of some approaches & entry points —
    read carefully, question clearly & directly, look for tools/apps related to subject, cross check, re-check - the old trust, but verify mantra,
    don't just look to confirm a preconception or thesis.
    IBM &  it: think and think differently - don't assume - be a sponge, then edit/assemble…
    try to read/skim the comments - frequently there are contributions that provide further background… also use image search,
    flickr is a great example with search capabilities… (not withstanding - found with SurfWax)
    if the topic is a location, explore with Goo Maps , streetview & WikiMiniAtlas & GeoHack…
    use twitter & facebook to search subject: example - UK locations
    for recent topical subjects…
    Surfwax - Covers last 7 days from 140 popular RSS sites. Updated every hour.
    example (go… ogle) - go… (read tips, type/enter slowly)
    also for topical subjects: an aggregator; e.g., Google News or Popurls
    found using [how to research a topic quickly]
    UNC brainstorming
    google infographic
    some ref sites/tools
    Wikipedia portals, lists, glossaries:
    Wiki alts
    check blogrolls and site tools - an example off Drudge (headlines aside)…
    Refdesk - resources that may not readily come to mind…
    "Knowledge is of two kinds. We know a subject ourselves,
    or we know where we can find information upon it."
    - Samuel Johnson
    site of the day - a tiny sampling of what is out there
    non-net: talk to people who are trusted sources, objective and/or hold different view points… then explore the results.
    walk away when overwhelmed, too deeply immersed, or tired… come back fresh and flexible, resist habit as reflex.
    btw, what's this…? "smiles" is a decent, non-metric alt…
    [pn****sis] #6 of the SERP… select word (cursor on word, double tap), right click/2 finger tap, click/tap search with Google… now I know to avoid inhalation of very fine silicate or quartz dust…
    from here — the application of information -
    Nassim NicholنTaleb
    post Black Swan - Antifragile

  8. 1. What do you do when you need to learn about a topic area very quickly?

    It depends on the topic. I have learned so many ways to learn from the challenges on this blog. I think what I want or need to know drives many of the choices in how I go about learning more.
    Do I need to know...
    • definitions
    • synonyms
    • history
    • identification
    • data
    • a tool

    I may search for more info, watch a video, ask someone I know. How I learn more about anything really depends on past experiences, background knowledge, how the question is phrased and more. It's not always fast either.

  9. If Anne and I are looking for information in our field one of the first places we would go it to one of the many listservs that we subscribe to. Usually the question has been posed before and if not there are people who respond to questions pretty readily. So this is a very quick, useful way to get a library question answered. If the question is out of our field we might start with a google search. As others have pointed out keywords are important. We do use Wikipedia to find information. The references and related information can be very helpful. But we have found that sometimes with students that Wikipedia can be overwhelming. They say they like it because it is usually at the top of the results. We have found that once we show them an online encyclopedia (we subscribe to Britannica) that they like it better. Our subscription version offers 3 different levels so students can choose a reading level that is more comfortable for them and it is much more visually appealing. We don't have anything against Wikipedia but for some students the layout of Britannica is better. Wikipedia is so pervasive that sometimes we forget that there are other sources. Being in a library we have access to databases so depending on the topic we might go to one of our databases first. One of the hardest things to teach is how do you know where the best place to find information. We try to model using databases and then we have teachers telling students they HAVE to use them but they aren't right for that particular search. Sometimes knowing someone in the field or who has knowledge of the topic and reaching out through social media can be a great way to find information. You can sometimes connect to experts around the world this way. It is amazing how quickly a question can be passed along and someone with the right answer sees the question.
    Just read Fred's reply and I think he nails it. This is what we strive to teach to our students and the staff at our school.

    1. Listservs are excellent. Do you have any tips for finding them in a given domain?

    2. Debbie & Anne - thanks for info on listserv as a tool. I am not familiar with listservs. I did a quick search and found this site but I would like to understand better how to make use of them & where I should look. Thanks for adding this to our toolbox.

    3. Do you mean these? [search listervs ] I never had tried them so, even when Dr. Russell has talked a lot about them, no idea if these are CataList, the official catalog of LISTSERV® lists

    4. Rosemary and Ramon we have several listservs that we belong to. First heard about them when we were taking our school library courses. We belong to several. For information related to our field they can be invaluable. That is the upside. The downside is getting all the emails and having to go through!

    5. Thanks, Anne and Debbie. For those emails, do you create filters to read first the best ones or all of them have same information?

  10. Google works very well here: using the topic or subject area (in this case library) and then the word listservs brings up a great set of results. Some results are links to actual listservs but many are links to library organizations with lists of listservs. They are a great way to get library specific information. I once had a question on copyright. I had literally just hit send when my phone rang and it was a librarian I knew from her responses on the listserv with an answer to my question. She called because my question was somewhat sensitive; I was requested to do something that I felt was a copyright infringement. She had the perfect response for me and the issue was resolved.