Technology is all around us. We are challenged to learn new software and hardware, new programs and apps, and to embrace the ideal of knowing ‘a little bit about everything.’ Learning something new every day will keep you excited and engaged with your job, your profession, and everyday life.
How does paying attention to technology and the structure of databases push an information professional’s locating and retrieving skills to the next level? Here’s one way.
There’s a notion, often repeated, that librarians know “a little about everything” and then know how to find details that flesh out the little that we already know. That’s easy to say but difficult to accomplish. How do we keep ourselves open and receptive to learning something new every day? We need to embrace the “ah-ha” moments and dive a little deeper into whatever we encounter.
I once asked a colleague how he could stand doing repetitive research, particularly after 40 years in the same field. He said, "There's always something new to learn from every encounter, from each bit of research." With that, a lightbulb went on and I realized that’s what librarians, archivists, curators, and information professionals do. We constantly learn, explore, and examine. We look down from above and we dig below the surface to understand the bigger picture.
It’s an attitude—we’re always thinking and reflecting about what we are searching for and what we find. With every reference interaction and every project, we need to keep an open mind. How do we nurture that attitude?
A new way of looking and experiencing
Keep an open mind. Don’t tune out when answering reference questions, particularly repetitive ones. Think "outside the box." Take a step back and look at that same old question from a new perspective. Determine how you would teach someone else to search for the topic. Think about a new approach to finding the information. Better yet, consider how the searching method you use and the data you find fits into the larger picture. That’s right, use your practical skill to understand the underlying theory of how and why the information fits together.
I took that “learn something new” attitude to heart and starting looking beyond the repetitive projects to understand "why." I began to really understand how the records worked, how the information was really arranged. I went beyond practice to understand the theory, the rationale behind the ideas and routines. It's made me an expert in various types of records. As a librarian I studied how and why the records were interconnected—particularly through their access points. I also noticed that the web of interconnectedness went beyond the routine research I was doing into wholly different subject disciplines.
Delving below the surface – an example
Courthouse records, particularly property records, appear to stand on their own. There’s a paper index for every type of document. The physical records are kept in sequence by type. Today using online databases, the documents are interfiled, or so they seem to be. Even so, each document is identifiable by type: deeds, mortgages, leases, easements, releases, among others. So how do they work and why? Imagine these records are like catalog cards or records that provide access through authors, titles, subjects, and call numbers.
By examining the indexing process and the documents themselves, we ask questions to understand the theory. Why so many different types of indices? How do the indices and records fit together? What’s the theory behind how the indices work? The paper indices and their interconnectedness reflect the theory that answers these questions.
Let’s take transfer of property. These are common courthouse records. Deeds transfer property, while mortgages are connected to the deeds, for they place a lien on the property until the debt is paid off. Leases are agreements between owner and lessee with the right to do something on, or with, the property. Easements permit others to walk on properties or use them in some way, usually utility companies to place poles on the property or dig a hole. In this way, the documents are interconnected. The common thread or primary data point is the property and then the owner. All the documents revolve around the property and its description, specifically the unique geographical location. Nevertheless, we search by owners over time because that’s the easiest access point to index.
Paper indices and databases are keyed by either owner or property description. As each document is keyed into the databases or index, the data is connected through the property description. Note that these databases are modeled upon the paper indices. Most people trace ownership, but it’s the property that remains constant or fixed.
How would a librarian look at these records? The property description is like a call number; unique, identifiable, and locatable like books on a shelf. Document types are like subject headings, authors, and titles which you can search for just like property owners. In this way, the call number, the location on the shelf, is like the property description which identifies the geographical location.
By the way, the same is true of legal records and court cases. Court case records are connected by case number, the unique data point, while the databases are searchable by plaintiff and defendant.
Stepping beyond the routine
How does paying attention to technology and the structure of information improve your data retrieval skills and your understanding of how data is organized? Courthouse property records’ databases include searchable fields by which documents are identifiable and locatable. Databases used for courthouse records are modeled upon access points used in the print indices and enhanced whenever possible. When you delve below the surface, the records are connected by property descriptions, even though researchers use owners as the primary access point.
Information professionals gain a better sense of how information is interconnected by carefully examining these records, thinking about how the connections are structured and the access points assigned, and by constant use. It’s a way to learn something new every day, with every encounter with records. Continuously educating and improving your understanding of records, databases, and the field, makes you a better information professional, better able to handle novel situations as new questions arise.
Summing it up
Next time, you think something is routine, (other than directions to the restroom or elevator), think about how or why the database works in a particular way, why the information is arranged just so, or why you may have to ask for the information in different ways using different terminology until you hit upon the common access point or identifier. By keeping ourselves open to new knowledge and new ways of looking at information, we learn something new every day.