Teaching Dialog

Stephanie Willen Brown’s post at ACRLog on teaching Dialog in a reference course both puzzled and intrigued me.

First, the puzzlement. My first thought was, how quaint. That must be the first thought of a lot of librarians, or the apologetic post would not have been necessary. However, that was also my first thought when I encountered Dialog for the first and last time in my own basic reference class at the University of Illinois ten years ago. It was a summer reference class, and I don’t remember much about it, except being taught Dialog. In 1998 this seemed quaint, and that was before Google tricked the world into thinking search was always simple. The odd queries, the per search payment, the pre-search calculations of what might be effective–all these already seemed old fashioned to me, and I wasn’t even a librarian yet. After ten years of reference work, it seems even more old fashioned. In general, I’m not opposed to old fashioned, and in fact am quite comfortable with it, but nevertheless that’s how my Dialog training struck me.

Then, the intrigue. But wait, maybe the problem is me. I’ll be the first to admit that with things I don’t quite understand. Is it that I’m an academic librarian and don’t do any fee-based searching, so I can just be as sloppy as I like? Or did those couple of weeks on Dialog teach me important lessons on searching databases? I’m not the best reference librarian I’ve ever worked with, but I’m pretty good at searching databases effectively. Did the exposure to Dialog help? Reflecting on this, I’d still have to say, no. It may teach “how databases are structured beneath the hood,” but I got that lesson without doing much Dialog searching.

To digress slightly, though, I’m not sure how much I got out of that reference course. My best reference class was a humanities reference class, and the best training was a year and a half at the information desk in the UIUC Main Library and the intensive apprenticeship we all underwent. Maybe if we’d worked with Dialog there, I’d have fonder memories of it. I learned much of what I know about reference there, so if I can’t search Dialog effectively I have only Beth Woodard to blame.

Brown also linked to a 2001 essay by Carol Tenopir on all the lessons Dialog can easily teach LIS students, lessons on indexing, boolean operators, proximity operators, controlled vocabulary, etc. All important, undoubtedly. But is Dialog the best way to teach such things? Possibly, but it still seems quaint to me. Then again, maybe that’s why nobody asks me to teach reference.

One thought on “Teaching Dialog

  1. My thought when learning Dialog (also in 1998) was, “How lovely, someone is nostalgic for GOPHER.” I hear there are better interfaces now, but I wouldn’t know, since I have never even once seen Dialog in use in an actual library setting. I’m sure it must be, though.
    I had fun using Dialog, but I don’t think I learned anything I wouldn’t have learned otherwise.

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