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Searching for information: a practical guide

Why are we searching?

Searching for information is not always straightforward. We got a bunch of librarians to suggest some insider pointers and useful techniques.
Captions over a landscape view of Portmeirion: 'What do you want?' 'Information!'

What even is information? — In one sense it's everything we can perceive: all we see and hear is data to be interpreted and made sense of, to inform our understanding and awareness of the world. More narrowly we might say that it's the specifically helpful data: the stuff that helps us 'answer' a particular question.

But why?

The first question to ask yourself before doing any sort of search for information is why?Why are you searching? What are you after?

Most of the time when we're searching for something, that something is the answer a question. The question could be "What time's the next train due?" or "What have I seen that actor in?" or it could be something altogether more academic like "How has climate change impacted wildlife and biodiversity?"


The answer to "What time's the next train due?" is hopefully going to be a single specific time. We could probably find that information on a station departures board or on a timetable or on the train company's website or on something like National Rail Enquiries. Sure, there might be complexities like delayed or cancelled trains, but effectively the answer ought to be straightforward and definitive: a single piece of data from a reputable source should provide us with the information we need.


The answer to "What have I seen that actor in?" is going to give us a few more options: we can probably find a filmography from Wikipedia or the Internet Movie Database, but then we're going to have to deduce from that filmography precisely what it was we saw them in. In other words, the information we find only gives us part of the answer; the rest is on us to critically consider and assess.


The answer to "How has climate change impacted wildlife and biodiversity?" is going to be even more difficult for us to determine. There's going to be a breadth of opinions and a breadth of evidence to consider. The answer won't be simple or straightforward (there might not even be a "right answer") and we're going to have to think critically about the search results we find in order to decide which sources are reliable. We'll need to 'synthesize' — pull together — the information, and critically interpret the data. What evidence is there and what further questions might it pose for us? Do we agree with what's been written? What do we conclude having considered what we've read?

When faced with a search task like this, we're going to want to make sure that the sources we're finding are relevant and reliable. When we search for train information we go to train information sources; when we search for film information we go to film information sources; when we search for cheese, etc... So when we search for information to answer an academic question, we're going to need to be looking at academic sources.

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