Beyond Googling

Tech-savvy students discover new ‘deep search’ options via campus libraries

City Tech assistant professor Aaron Barlow introduces student Kino Barbaby to a cutting-edge database.

When students sit down to write a research paper these days, many begin by tiptoeing past the library, logging on to the Internet—and going directly to Google.

Indeed, the ubiquitous search engine has become a kind of CliffsNotes for this generation of students, a handy shortcut in locating relevant sources and content across the sprawling Web. Even faculty members and librarians acknowledge that Google Books, Google News and Google Scholar are becoming increasingly useful to contemporary researchers.

But while Googling has become a staple of student life, it reflects merely the tip of a critical academic skill now being taught to thousands of CUNY students: the use of sophisticated online searching techniques that help them retrieve valuable information stored across hundreds of public and proprietary databases.

“Students all have the perception of their level of competence with Google,” says Lisa Ellis, assistant professor and Information Services librarian at Baruch College. “The goal is to get them to realize that Google is a great tool, but there are other tools out there.”

The big thing is to “heighten students’ awareness,” adds Ellis, not only of the underutilized array of available search techniques, but of the roughly 200 reference databases available to CUNY students and faculty. “How do we make sure students use them? It [online searching] becomes a tool of discovery; it helps students become more effective.”

Google searching produces mostly “surface content,” notes University Librarian Curtis Kendrick. By learning various techniques to search different databases, students can discover the content of the “Deep Web,” Kendrick says. “Academic libraries pay a lot of money for information that used to sit on shelves and now it’s available online. This is cutting-edge stuff.”

And the university is continuously increasing this “deep search” capacity by adding databases and state-of-the-art services through its libraries, Kendrick says. For example, the CUNY Board of Trustees recently approved a $1.3 million agreement with SUNY and Nylink, a nonprofit organization of libraries across the state, to receive various services for CUNY’s college libraries. They include Internet-based online cataloging, collection management and participation in LAND, a statewide delivery system that enables students and faculty to locate and borrow items from other libraries within days, rather than the weeks it used to take.

“It’s a huge deal,” Kendrick says. The agreement expands the university’s ongoing relationship with Nylink, enabling CUNY libraries to negotiate better prices for many database subscriptions and share electronic documents and collections more effectively across campuses. Through Nylink, the university can connect students and faculty to the World Wide Catalogue, known as World Cat, which combines a billion titles in 10,000 libraries globally.

Nylink is “really important for the digital library,” says Kendrick, noting that an increasing number of documents these days are “born digital”—that is, created and distributed primarily through the Web, rather than as print copies. The economics of publishing favor such virtual texts, Kendrick says, and “publishers are encouraging libraries to drop their print subscriptions.”

CUNY is also continuously looking to expand its stable of databases for the academic community. As the university progresses through its Decade of Science—a renewed commitment to strengthening science, math, technology and engineering— CUNY’s board has recently approved a $989,000, three-year license agreement with Springer Science+Business Media. Springer offers access to more than 1,000 journals, digital books, electronic journals with multimedia components and other academic materials. Springer’s databases cover dozens of disciplines, ranging from chemistry, physics, medicine and the biomedical sciences to geosciences, psychology and public health.

Springer is just one of a diverse list of databases available to students and faculty through the Websites of individual CUNY libraries. The broad subject areas and include general and reference; humanities; business and social science; science and health; education and library science; and e-books and catalogues. (For a complete list of databases available University-wide, log on to

Teaching students about database options and searching techniques is all part of a movement toward “Neteracy,” says Aaron Barlow, assistant professor of English at New York City College of Technology, who teaches the effective use of Web tools in his journalism and advanced technical writing courses. Neteracy is essentially the online equivalent of literacy, says Barlow. True literacy, he says, requires more skills than just knowing how to read and write; it involves knowing how to make dozens of decisions about what we read—for example, making judgments about the content of books based on their subject categories, cover blurbs from other authors, chapter headings, even typefaces. Similarly, we need to teach our students ways to acquire knowledge about a website and databases and assess their content based on distinctive characteristics, says Barlow, who’s also written two books, The Rise of the Blogsphere and Blogging America: The New Public Sphere.

For example, students need to learn the difference between proprietary and public databases; how to do full-text searches; how to find databases focusing on peer review journals or websites that have been taken down and cached, just to name a few issues. “There’s so much to learn,” Barlow says. “These things are so complex, you need everyday usage to get competent. It takes repetition and skills acquisition…Students need to graduate from college confident in their use of these skills.” Like Barlow, Keith Muchowski, an Instruction and Reference Librarian at City Tech, believes that it’s fine to do Google searches and make use of public databases like Wikipedia—as long as you employ them judiciously and understand their strengths and weaknesses.

“Students are technically savvy, but they don’t come in knowing how to think critically about information,” says Muchowski, who teaches an advanced technical writing class with City Tech with professor Charles Hirsh. “How is information produced, where is it coming from and where are its biases? Students discover that they get very different results when they do the same search across different databases—say, newspapers vs. academic journals…You get these ‘aha! moments,’ and they’re very rewarding.”

Ellis of Baruch College notes that specific search tools can dramatically increase the effectiveness of students’ searches. An example: the improved use of “proximity operators,” which combine words or concepts that appear close to each other in a document by using “and,” requiring that all such terms appear in a record. Another tool, “truncation,” enables searchers to enter the first part of a keyword, insert a symbol (usually *), and accept variant spellings or word endings from the occurrence of the symbol forward (such as manage* also retrieves manager, management).

In some instances, Baruch students are encouraged to use “federated” search tools such as “Bearcat”—a strategy that allows users to apply one tool across many databases or subjects at the same time. Federated searches are useful for cross-disciplinary research, as well as helping students avoid “search fatigue” —doing massive numbers of searches that yield ineffective results, says University Librarian Kendrick.

Overall, Kendrick says, the goal of “neteracy” is part of a larger University vision of information literacy for students in all disciplines, helping people understand “what’s the perspective of the producer of content and how to use sources in an ethical, appropriate way.” And continuing to build the digital library “will help leverage resources for the entire CUNY community and bring services to wherever people are, 24/7, anytime, anywhere.”

A Database Sampling

Here is a sample of popular search engines and searchable databases available for free to the CUNY community through its library websites. Almost every search engine and searchable database has a powerful “advanced search.” For a complete list of CUNY-wide databases, log on to

CIAO. Full-text database covering theory and research in international affairs and social sciences. Subject coverage includes global issues, world politics and political science, religions, nationalism, terrorism, diplomacy, security and the world economy.

CQ Researcher. Full-text database providing factual information on current, emerging and controversial topics.

EBSCO (Elton B. Stephens Company). An umbrella company providing a number of searchable databases, which provide information on recent issues and cover a wide range of fields and types of publications. Databases include Academic Search Premier and Business Source Premier.

Factiva. Full-text database that provides global news, business and financial information from newspapers, magazines, newswires and trade journals.

General Science Collection. Full-text coverage for 73 popular science publications. Database includes an encyclopedia, The Great Scientific Achievements of the Twentieth Century.

Grove Art, Music. Grove Art Online provides web access to the entire text of The Dictionary of Art, ed. Jane Turner (1996, 34 vols), and The Oxford Companion to Western Art, ed. Hugh Brigstocke (2001). Grove Music Online comprises the full text of The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, second edition, The New Grove Dictionary of Opera, and The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz, second edition.

JSTOR. Full text of over 250 journals in business, arts and sciences, language and literature, economics, political science, history, demographics, literature, philosophy and various other fields in the social sciences and humanities. Journal coverage begins with the first issue of each journal, in some cases going as far back as the 1800s.

LexisNexis Academic. A full-text database that provides access to a wide range of news, business, legal and reference information compiled specifically for the research needs of academic institutions.

Oxford Reference online. Offers full-text access to 100 separate reference works published by Oxford University Press covering the complete subject spectrum: from General Reference and Language to Science and Medicine.

Project MUSE. Full-text access to over 300 scholarly journals in the humanities, social sciences and mathematics.

ScienceDirect. Full-text access to journals primarily in the areas of science, technology, social science and medicine.

Women & Social Movements. Currently includes 74 document projects with 2,200 documents, 29,000 pages of additional full-text documents, and 1,600 primary authors.