Sharing Searching Quirks

We have a pretty darn fantastic research training program at my shop. We offer learning objective based source training and give refresher training at lawyers desks, in groups, as feature items on meeting agendas, and we also share what we know via blogs, email bulletins and on our Intranet in both text and multimedia. We keep our skills sharp by attending vendor delivered training and by doing legal research daily.

Even with this highly programmed scenario we learn search quirks by initially not getting things quite right and then figuring out why things did not work as expected. Here is an example scenario:

  • Task is to gather decisions where a particular lawyer was counsel using CanLII
  • First search string: first and last name, hits narrowed to the jurisdiction of practice:
    Simon Fodden
  • Second search string: combo of first initial and name with proximity to last name, hits narrowed to the jurisdiction of practice:
    Simon OR S /2 Fodden
  • Third string: search the second combo plus first and middle initials seperated by a period, hits narrowed to the jurisdiction of practice:
    Simon OR S OR S.R /2 Fodden

The quirk is that to the CanLII search engine “S.R.” looks like a string of text. Many search engines strip out periods and other special characters as a matter of course, so S within two words of Fodden would also gather S.R. within two words of Fodden.

Other search engines have quirks as well. In Labour Spectrum, searching for case citations requires exact formatting including all punctuation and spaces. In LexisNexis Quicklaw you need to make sure you combine your jurisdictions properly (or do not over limit your query) or you will miss the SCC decisions in your geographic search. With Westlaw Canada search the headnote controlled language subject strings but remember to remove the dahes or you won’t find what you expect.

Experience, and learning from previous experiences are best for discovering and remembering these quirks, but is there another way? Who would remember to look for ‘advanced searching tips’ before executing every search? Is there anything simple about searching or is it more appropriate for expert searchers to perform the results gathering every time? Do you remember when only a few people had access to the Quicklaw computer?

Democratizing information and making the engines that feed information back to people easier to use makes struggling with knowing and then sharing the search quicks a difficult question. I want all the lawyers and staff I work with to feel free to go forth to the web and get what they need. I certainly don’t want them to have to wait for a library staff person to assist them every time they need to gather information. I also want everyone to get the correct set of results. Data will be returned with each of the search examples above with the data collected being a slightly larger (and more correct) set of results with each enhancement of the search string. How do I ensure that great searching happens so that data can become information?


  1. David Collier-Brown

    Bang on the GUI designers with a very heavy clue-stick (;-))

    To paraphrase a professional ergonomist’s advice of almost twenty years ago, what one is applying something to should be physically visible.

    If you want to do “AND” operations, line them up horizontally. “OR”s are included by adding additional lines below the first (ie, vertically).

    Selections of groups are done by dragging things together, so you can see you have SCC in the bucket along with Ontario.

    And so on, and so on. Google follows this rule, and presents its *only* operation, AND, by horizontal juxtaposition.

    (See Sigrid, I still remember the clue-stick that you whacked me with)