11 Seven Pillars: Scope

A person who is information literate in the Scope pillar is able to assess current knowledge and identify gaps. In addition to knowing that you are missing essential information, another component of information literacy is understanding that the information you seek may be available in different formats such as books, journal articles, government documents, blog postings, and news items. Each format has a unique value. The graphic below represents a common process of information dissemination. When an event happens, we usually hear about it from news sources—broadcast, web, and print. More in-depth exploration and analysis of the event often comes from government studies and scholarly journal articles. Deeper exploration, as well as an overview of much of the information available about the event, is often published in book format.

When you are looking for information, you probably start by entering some search terms into Google and hoping that you find something useful. Using Google successfully is an important information literacy skill and we will discuss how to find the most reliable information later.

A better first step might be to identify a library that contains academic resources so that you will have access to more scholarly treatments of the subject. Luckily, PSU has such a library with very helpful librarians who are experts at finding useful information about any topic.

A library catalog is a database that contains all of the items located in a library as well as all of the items to which the library has access. It allows you to search for items by title, author, subject, and keyword. A keyword is a word that is found anywhere within the record of an item in the catalog. A catalog record displays information that is pertinent to one item, which could be a book, a journal, a government document, or a video or audio recording.

If you search by subject in an academic library catalog you can take advantage of the controlled vocabulary created by the Library of Congress. Controlled vocabulary consists of terms or phrases that have been selected to describe a concept. For example, the Library of Congress has selected the phrase “Motion Picture” to represent films and movies. So, if you are looking for books about movies, you would enter the phrase “Motion Picture” into the search box. Controlled vocabulary is important because it helps pull together all of the items about one topic. In this example, you would not have to conduct individual searches for movies, then motion pictures, then film; you could just search once for motion pictures and retrieve all the items on movies and film. You can discover subject terms in item catalog records.

Many libraries provide catalog discovery interfaces that provide cues to help refine a search. This makes it easier to find items on specific topics. For example, if you enter the search terms “Hydraulic Fracturing” into a catalog with a discovery interface, the results page will include suggestions for refinements including several different aspects of the topic. You can click on any of these suggested refinements to focus your search.

Using this method, you will likely fins several good resources on your wicked problem. Why might you choose books instead of another format for your starting resources? Books can provide an overview of a broad topic. Often, the author has gathered the information from multiple sources and created an easy to understand overview. You can look later for corroborating evidence in government documents and journal articles. Books might be a good information resource for this stage of your research.

Once you start to locate useful information resources, you might realize that there are further gaps in your knowledge. How do you decide which books to use? You might want the most current information, because you definitely don’t want to use outdated information. Looking at publication date will help you to choose the most recent items.

How can you get these books? They might be available at PSU’s library in which case you can borrow them as a PSU student. But if PSU doesn’t own them, you can use interlibrary loan. which will allow you to access books from other academic libraries. There is a wealth of knowledge contained in the resources of academic and public libraries throughout the United States. Single libraries can’t hope to collect all of the resources available on a topic. Fortunately, libraries are happy to share their resources and they do this through interlibrary loan. Interlibrary loan allows you to borrow books and other information resources regardless of where they are located. If you know that a book exists, ask your library to request it through their interlibrary loan program. This service is available at both academic and most public libraries.

Another good source of information is journal articles. If you want to find journal articles, you should start your search  with research databases. Research databases contain records of journal articles, documents, book chapters, and other resources. Online library catalogs differ from other research databases in that they contain only the items available through a particular library or library system. Research databases are often either broad or comprehensive collections and are not tied to the physical items available at any one library. Many databases provide the full-text of articles and can be searched by subject, author, or title. Another type of database provides just the information about articles and may provide tools for you to find the full text in another database. The databases that contain resources for a vast array of subjects are referred to as general or multidisciplinary databases. Other databases are devoted to a single subject, and are known as subject-specific databases. Databases are made up of:

  • Records: A record contains descriptive information that is pertinent to one item which may be a book, a chapter, an article, a document, or other information unit.
  • Fields: These are part of the record and they contain information that pertains to one aspect of an item such as the title, author, publication date, and subject.
  • The subject field can sometimes be labeled subject heading or descriptor. This is the field that contains controlled vocabulary. Controlled vocabulary in a database is similar to controlled vocabulary in a Library Catalog, but each database usually has a unique controlled vocabulary unrelated to Library of Congress classifications. Many databases will make their controlled vocabulary available in a thesaurus. If the database you are searching does not have a thesaurus, use the subject field in a record to find relevant subject terms.


Boolean Operators

One way to limit a database search is to use Boolean operators; words you can add to a search to narrow or broaden your search results. They are andor, and not. You can usually find these words in the advanced search query area of a database. And will narrow your search. For example, if you are interested in fresh water fishing you would enter the terms “fish and freshwater.” Your results would then include records that only contained both of these words.

Venn diagram of the search "fish and freshwater." The overlapping area is labeled "Your Search"

The green overlapping area in the diagram above represents the results from the “fish and freshwater” search.

Or will broaden your search and is usually used with synonyms. If you are interested in finding information on mammals found in the Atlantic Ocean, you could enter the terms “whales or dolphins.

Venn diagram of the search "whales or dolphins." All three portions, the two circles and the overlapping areas, are labelled "Your Search"

The circles above represent the or search. All of the records that contain one or another, or both of your search terms will be in your results list.

Not will eliminate a term from your results. If you were looking for information on all Atlantic Ocean fish except Bluefish, you would enter “fish not bluefish.”

Large circle with a smaller circle "cut out" in its interior. The inner circle is labeled "Bluefish" and the large circle is "fish"

The larger green circle represents the results that you would retrieve with this search.

Let’s say you want to find information about hydraulic fracturing. You can start with the phrase “hydraulic fracturing” and use and with the phrase “Marcellus Shale” to focus and limit your results. Your search query is now “hydraulic fracturing and Marcellus Shale.” You can see this represented below. The overlapping area represents the records this search will retrieve.

Venn diagram of the search "Hydraulic fracturing and marcellus shale." The overlapping area is labeled "Your Search"

More information on Boolean Operators can be found in the Plan chapter.

Database searching can seem confusing at first, but the more you use databases, the easier it gets and most of the time, the results you are able to retrieve are superior to the results that you will get from a simple internet search. Also, the librarians in Lamson Library are happy to help you find information using effective searching.


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Tackling Wicked Problems by Members of the TWP Community is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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