Why Do I Teach (Dialog) in LIS?

There’s a meme going around in the faculty blogosphere in which folks are talking about why they teach their subject; Barbara Fister recently talked about why she is a librarian here on this blog. I’ll write more about why our faculty colleagues teach in a future post, but the meme started me thinking about why I teach reference and advanced reference for Simmons GSLIS. In short, I teach because I love being a librarian and I want to pass that enthusiasm on to future librarians. I get excited by providing good service to my patrons (I’m chatting with one right now — multitasking!).

I also love the thrill of showing students resources that are just right for the task at hand. When new library students first see the DK Illustrated Visual Dictionary and say “I want this!” I am thrilled that I have taught them about a particular resource. The same thing happens with ProQuest’s Historical New York Times, MedlinePlus, and sometimes the New Dictionary of the History of Ideas (check out my source list for reference and see if I have included your favorites).

I also enjoy the harder task of teaching students to search well. In the introductory reference class, my students answer about 80 carefully-crafted faux reference questions designed to get them to construct a search in a particular way or use a specific resource (developing a question which can only be answered by the National Union Catalog Pre-1956 Imprints is no mean feat!). They start with the local OPAC and move towards more and more complex questions, and it is exhilarating for me to see them grow into very accomplished searchers.

I teach Dialog in advanced reference. I agonized recently about whether or not to continue teaching it, as my students are very unlikely to encounter Dialog in their library careers. And yet each time I think about not teaching Dialog, I always stick with it. Carol Tenopir makes some excellent arguments in favor in a May 2001 Library Journal column “Why I Still Teach Dialog.” I agree with many of these, particularly the part about learning how databases are structured beneath the hood, as it were, and showing them Dialog’s terrific Bluesheets (would that all databases had Bluesheets!)

Ultimately, Dialog teaches excellent searching skills. There are no shortcuts in Dialog; potential searchers must learn its archaic ways and odd syntax, and they fear the DialUnits building up as they flail and learn. Yet it is both the syntax and cost which make Dialog such a good teacher. The odd syntax (remember typing hillary(w)clinton, or even hillary()clinton instead of using “hillary clinton”) forces them to consider exactly what they want to retrieve from their search. And students of Dialog must learn to construct good searches before they log on to Dialog, because in their final project, they are graded partially on how much they spent on their search. Both the odd syntax and the cost force them to create good searches, and this will hold them in good stead as they sit at a busy reference desk or answer a frantic IM and help their patron find relevant materials quickly.

So I have decided once again this semester to continue to teach Dialog. I will not succumb to my practioner’s desire to have students focus learning the EBSCO interface or the lovely new WilsonWeb interface, because as we know, these will change. I would rather have them learn how a library database is constructed so they can apply that knowledge to any database they encounter within the next 20 to 40 years. Plus, as the Loose Cannon Librarian said when I solicited opinions whether or not folks needed to learn Dialog, knowing Dialog gives new librarians “street cred” with their elders.

I’ve decided that teaching EBSCO and Wilson is like giving hungry students fish – which is important! – but that teaching them Dialog is like teaching them to fish: search skills learned through Dialog will last them a lifetime.

Editor’s note: I am excited to be blogging here at ACRLog, where I plan to write occasional posts about what’s going on in the faculty blogosphere. In my full-time life, I am an Electronic Resource Librarian at the University of Connecticut, and in my spare time (ha!), I teach for Simmons GSLIS @ South Hadley (see above). My regular blog contains my non-official thoughts about librarianship and cognitive science (and the occasional interaction between the two); see http://cogscilibrarian.blogspot.com/.

11 thoughts on “Why Do I Teach (Dialog) in LIS?”

  1. I learned Dialog in library school (graduated in 06) and although I did think it was one of the most horrible interfaces to learn, it did teach me to think better about searching and how to find what I was looking for. Our professor actually encouraged us to think about it before going in since it cost money to search. Although I haven’t used it since that class, I’ve used some of those skills with Lexis Nexis, EBSCO, etc.

  2. Count me in as a fan of DIALOG. I have not only taught LIS students how to use it for many years, but I still use it myself as my preferred system when I have some literature searching to do. No system can match the power of a tool like RANK or can duplicate what Company Name Finder can do. Yes, the students groan about DIALOG’s archaic search syntax, although the new web version of DIALOG Classic would impress librarians who haven’t touched DIALOG for many years. They would think today’s students have it much easier. And despite the students’ struggle to grasp DIALOG, when they then get exposed to LEXIS/NEXIS for the first time, it’s always a joy to see them talking about how much better DIALOG is. That’s probably just one reason why I teach – learning things all over again through the eyes of the students.

  3. The last couple of weeks, sitting on an actual reference desk, I wish the reference class I took had focused more on teaching us how to think about answering a question. I’m sure I’ll get better and faster at reference as time goes on, but for now sometimes I feel only slightly less lost than I imagine the patron must. 🙂

  4. “I will not succumb to my practioner’s (sic) desire”…
    Oh good, yet more useless, outdated theory for my library school education. With the excess of theory in library school and very little practical skills taught (unless they are classes I haven’t taken yet…haha), it is a shame that jobs in libraries require you to actually be a practical librarian and not just sit at the circulation and/or reference desk and theorize with the patrons about the services I could be providing them if I actually had received such practical knowledge in library school.

  5. From an educator’s perspective it makes sense to teach students to use the Platonic form “database” in the shape of DIALOG. My own online searching class, however, covered only that…and I think exposing LIS students to the full diversity of what’s available in terms of search is at least as important. For example, how EBSCO uses the same basic structure to create a completely different interface. So I agree with you, but I sincerely hope that DIALOG remains one important unit in a constantly changing syllabus.

  6. I learned DIALOG during my LIS schooling as well. I can see and appreciate the knowledge I gained in understanding how databases work from the inside as well as the complex structure of search terms. However, in our exercises there was a focus on creating search terms that resulted in the fewest responses as possible. We were trying to find “the” article that would answer our research question. The idea that we can create a perfect search phrase to find materials, strikes me as asking too much. When doing research on a complex, in-depth topic, it is impossible to find one article that addresses the entire issue. It seemed like that by creating the best search phrase there was no need to evaluate.

  7. mary, your comment reminds me of a story my mother-in-law (a nursing researcher) told me. She and a librarian sat down and constructed the perfect MEDLINE search for her topic. They worked through all the scope notes, etc., etc. When they ran the search, they got 1 article…that my mother-in-law had written. So it was indeed the perfect search, describing her research interests perfectly. And it was useless as written. (Not that it was a waste of time, especially since it’s provided me with an anecdote for instruction classes on broadening and narrowing topics for years now.)

  8. Hooray for teaching DIALOG skills! I learned so much about the strategy of searching and mapping out search strings because we had to learn DIALOG in my reference classes. Plus, I agree with the Loose Cannon Librarian — it does give a bit of street cred 🙂 Thanks, Stephanie!

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