User Practices in Keyword and Boolean Searching on an Online Public Access Catalog

By Ensor, Pat | Information Technology and Libraries, September 1992 | Go to article overview
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User Practices in Keyword and Boolean Searching on an Online Public Access Catalog

Ensor, Pat, Information Technology and Libraries

Keyword and Boolean searching modes are now becoming more commonly available on online public access catalogs, and questions have arisen regarding their use by library patrons. How difficult do users perceive these searches to be? Do those who use them tend to rely on them all the time to the exclusion of all other methods? This study attempts to provide answers to these questions in the context of an academic library that uses the Northwestern Online Total Integrated System online catalog.


After keyword/Boolean searching mode was available for awhile on Indiana State Universities (ISU) Libraries" online public access catalog (OPAC), questions began to arise. The percentage of searches done in keyword mode rose steadily from 15.6% in November 1988 to 21.4% in November 1989 before leveling off. How did those who used keyword/Boolean searching use and perceive it? Did they find it difficult? Did they prefer to use it most of the time? Were they satisfied with it?

The author undertook a study of the practices and perceptions of the users of keyword searching on the Northwestern Online Total Integrated System (NOTIS) to answer these questions and others. The two guiding theses of the study were: (1) the use or nonuse of keyword searching on LUIS is related to variables such as age, computer experience, subject area, status, and frequency of searching, and (2) there are certain measures ISU Libraries can take to increase the chance that patrons will use keyword searching and to improve the quality of their keyword searching.

The findings of this study attempt to rep resent users" early reception of keyword searching; the results should be useful for future comparison to similar data collected about keyword searching and about user reactions to future new OPAC features. (The full project report, submitted to ERIC, and an article published elsewhere also detail other aspects of patron keyword searching. (1)

The University

Indiana State University has approximately 11,000 students, including about 2,000 graduate students. A small number of doctorates are offered are in the fields of education and psychology. Master's degrees are awarded in all schools; they include the College of Arts and Sciences and the Schools of Business, Education, Nursing, Technology, Health, Physical Education, and Recreation. The University has approximately 700 faculty members.

The Library

Indiana State University Libraries include a main library, Cunningham Memorial Library, and a science library, which covers chemistry, biology, and geology. Since March 1985, the ISU Libraries have made the NOTIS online catalog, LUIS, available to the public. It lists over 99 percent of the library's holdings, with 1,751,000 bibliographic records. It also includes the holdings of two nearby smaller institutions: Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology, an engineering school, and St. Mary-of-the-Woods College, a liberal arts institution.

Keyword Searching

Indiana State University Libraries made the keyword mode of LUIS searching available in the late spring of 1988, so that it had been available for almost two years when this study was done. Prior to the introduction of keyword/Boolean searching, NOTIS had three modes of searching available: author, done by typing in "a=[author's last name first name]"; title, done by typing in "t=[title of work, omitting initial article]"; and subject, done by typing in "s=[Library of Congress subject heading]." In early 1988, NOTIS introduced the keyword/Boolean search mode, done in its most basic form by entering "k=[word or phrase]." The syntax of this search mode is a very simplified form of the BRS search language.

Library Instruction

Library instruction at ISU Libraries is primarily carried out by the Library Instruction & Orientation Department, which has two librarians. The author and four other librarians participate in instruction when needed.

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User Practices in Keyword and Boolean Searching on an Online Public Access Catalog


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