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Blind Co-Browsing, Teachable Moments, and the Power of Gaming

Magazine article Online

Blind Co-Browsing, Teachable Moments, and the Power of Gaming

Article excerpt

IT was near Christmas, so my university library's virtual reference service, with online push and co-browse technology, was on hiatus. That left us with blind co-browsing by telephone. On the other end of the telephone line was a senior university student doing a psychology paper on the possible connection between obsessive-compulsive disorder and brain/neurological problems. She was wherever she was, and I was at the library information desk.

I had asked her at the beginning of her call, "What have you already tried?" She named a large multitopic database with a really shabby "subject-heading" system. Her results, she told me, had been many but mostly irrelevant. She hadn't tried a subject-heading search, but I could have told her it wouldn't do her much good.

"Your problem," I told her, taking courage, "is that you need to find the right database. Do you think you can get to PsycINFO?"

"Yes." There was a pause, and then she said, "I've got it."

"So do I," I said. "There's a green bar near the top, and on it is a tab for the thesaurus."

"I see it. I'm clicking on it now."


"The thesaurus will help you to identify results related directly to obsessive-compulsive disorder," I told her. "You'll find a subject heading that should pick up most of the articles on obsessive-compulsive disorder in general. That way we won't lose any articles we need when we narrow our search."

"Do you see the yellow bar about a third of the way down the screen?" I asked.

"Yes," she said.

"The box in the yellow bar will let you identify the right descriptor in the thesaurus." She seemed hesitant, so I went on. "Think of it this way. A descriptor or a subject heading is supposed to help you find most things in the database on your topic. It's like going to the right country. Once you're there, you'll use other terms to help you narrow down to the right city and the right citizens, which will be the articles themselves." Clever, but I wasn't sure if she was grasping the concept.

She browsed to the descriptor Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, and so did I. The 6,000-plus results that came out of the search were pretty much what I expected. "Don't worry about it," I said. "We're now in obsessive-compulsive disorder territory, but we need to narrow to the right city. You'll get fewer hits then." (I was tempted to call them "O-C Land" and "Neurological City," but I remembered that I was talking to an adult.) I was, of course, doing a simple take on hierarchical searching, starting with a broad subject, and then drilling down to specifics.


Next, I showed her how to formulate a Boolean add-on to her descriptor. It eventually looked something like this: DE "Obsessive Compulsive Disorder" and (brain or neural*).

"What about words like 'damage' or 'dysfunction'?" she asked. "Shouldn't they be in there too?"

"Well," I said, "in my experience, the simpler your search, at least to begin with, the better. You can always add more terms if your results don't pan out. But every term you add eliminates results that might also be quite useful. You can probably assume, if you're already in the territory of obsessive-compulsive disorder, that adding 'brain or neural' assumes that they will take you to issues related to that problem."

We did the search and cut our results down to something more manageable and much more on target. Then she said the one thing that made it all worthwhile: "Thank you. I had no idea we could do so much with these databases." Talk about a teachable moment. She had contacted me at a point of need, and I'd had the opportunity to open new avenues for her that met her need.


We could only wish that such moments happened all the time, but they don't. Many point-of-need situations don't come with teachable moments, let alone teachable patrons. …

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