Medline Searching as a Metaphor for Life?

This morning I got to work at my usual extra-early time and did what I normally do when I arrive early. Once my colleagues and I had finished the opening routine, I went back to my office to get started on the typical morning tasks: checking email, making a cup of tea, etc. Our library, as I mentioned, opens at 8am, but we don’t actually start offering reference services until 9am. the 8-9 shift on the desk is usually a quiet one, letting us all ease into the day. This morning I was scheduled on the desk from 9-11am, but at around 8:30 my first shift colleague who had a lot on her plate to start the day came and asked me if I would help a student. The look on her face told me it was a kind of special/urgent situation, so out I went.

When I sat down at the desk a student was waiting for me, laptop open, and a vague deer in the headlights look on her face. I introduced myself and gave my standard opening of “How can I help?” and we got started.

She took a deep breath and started talking. She explained that she had an assignment, but that she felt completely overwhelmed about where to start, where to look, how to formulate her PS question, what words she should be using, and on and on. I let her speak, let her dump all the information she needed to get out onto me, and let her voice her frustration as to how she didn’t exactly understand and how scared she felt because it seemed like everyone else knew how to do everything and she didn’t. I listened, and once she had said everything she needed to say, I asked her a couple of clarifying questions, questions designed to help her slow down her thought process and questions that would allow her to explain the topic to me in her own terms, using her own vocabulary so that I could understand.

It’s a fascinating thing to watch someone who minutes earlier had been so flustered and confused patiently tell me about her research topic, and to see passion and excitement replace panic. Once I had a handle on what she needed to find I asked her the question I ask a lot of students in this situation: “What words or phrases do you think you should use to search the database?” And she, like a lot of students, looked horrified.

“It doesn’t matter what I think! It has to be evidence-based!”

“True,” I told her. “But you can’t find anything until you enter something in the database, so tell me, who is your population? What is the situation? Just think in regular language, normal, everyday words and you’ll be surprised what the database will turn up.”

This whole exchange likely won’t make much sense unless you too search databases with college or university students, but the wonderful thing about the entire conversation was that it became a Wizard of Oz moment. You know, when Glinda says to Dorothy, “You’ve always had the power, my dear. You just had to learn it for yourself.” THAT is what it’s like to see students go from “Oh shit, database searching” to “Ooooooh SHIT, database searching!”And it’s a glorious thing to witness.

These are some of my favourite kinds of interactions. I love that moment when students realize that they do have the power, that they can figure it out, that all they needed was a little guidance and someone to get excited for them once they were on the right track. Today’s student left with the tools and resources to take her further in the searching process and the promise that someone would always be at the desk in case she needed a little more assistance down the road.

But most of all I think she left the desk with a sense of accomplishment, a sense of pride that she did know what she was doing after all and no, maybe she didn’t know the exact MeSH terms she should be searching, (who does, really??) but that’s ok. The relief on her face made my day. I helped her, but she also helped herself. Slow it down, trust yourself. Your thoughts and opinions are always valid, and they are such an important part of the process.

Database searching, like life, can be very confusing. And, like life, it’s a lot of trial and error. But, also like life, you do have the power. You just have to learn it for yourself. And it helps to have friendly people along the way to get excited with you and high-five you when you figure it out.

 

 

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