Friday, April 08, 2005

Trying a new database?

Here are a few things that I always check before I start searching a new database or using a new interface or search engine:

1. Is the database based on a controlled vocabulary?
This is important because it immediately determines what my approach is going to be. If there is a controlled vocabulary, then I'll want to take advantage of that by letting the system map whatever I type to the appropriate vocabulary word for that particular database. For example, several years ago I was looking for information on surrogate mothers in a particular database and wasn't retrieving as much as I expected. I allowed the system to map my phrase 'surrogate mothers' to the vocabulary term commonly used in this discipline and 'host mothers' came up. I continued to search on the appropriate term and a world of information was revealed.

If the system isn't based on a controlled vocabulary, then I need to do alot of up front preparation.

2. What's the default operator?
This is especially important in search engines on the web. I want to know exactly how the system is going to treat the phrase that I type on the query line. Is it going to assume adjacency, put an AND between the words, or put an OR between the words?

3. What's the truncation symbol? What are the wildcards?
Critical! When I start to free text search, I need to be able to account for variations in words and word endings...if I don't know what these symbols are, I'm doomed.

4. Where's the HELP?
Well, good golly, how can you not want to know where the HELP is? This is where you find out why you keep getting those inexplicable results. Hints and tips galore are usually a click away. But, my colleagues tell me that I'm not normal when it comes to HELP. What can I say...I'm the one who reads the manual cover to cover, too.


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