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Children are increasingly gaining access to digitized information through many media -- online catalogs, CD-ROMs, online services, and the Internet. Using these tools to find the desired information can be challenging, as research has shown with adult searchers of online catalogs and online databases. Searching these electronic information sources requires a different set of search strategies and skills than searching print sources and appears to be related to the type of information that is desired. This article examines some of the issues related to how elementary schoolchildren find information on different types of search tasks on information retrieval systems, focusing on their use of the Science Library Catalog. The study found that task complexity and the amount of knowledge children have about the topic influence their success in locating information in the Science Library Catalog.
Children are increasingly gaining access to digitized information made available to them in their schools, homes, and libraries. While electronic information retrieval tools such as online catalogs, electronic encyclopedias, and the World Wide Web allow children to search for information in ways that are not available in print resources, they require increasingly sophisticated skill levels and knowledge of search systems. In addition, most electronic infor-mation retrieval systems have been designed for adult users with little or no consideration of how young users search and retrieve information. Children are usually expected to search the same information retrieval systems designed for adults, but research has shown that children's information needs (Walter, 1994), research approaches (Kuhlthau, 1991), cognitive abilities (Siegler, 1991), developmental levels (Piaget & Inhelder, 1969), and skills (Vandergrift, 1989) differ from those of adults. Studies performed on children's use of online catalogs, which were designed for adults, have found that children usually like using them, but often have difficulty locating specific information related to their information needs. This article explores how children find different types of information on an information retrieval system called the Science Library Catalog designed specifically for elementary schoolchildren.
The Science Library Catalog Project
The Science Library Catalog Project began in 1989 as an outgrowth of the larger Project SEED (Science for Early Educational Development). The Science Library Catalog Project's goals were to design an interface for an automated library catalog that was appropriate for elementary schoolchildren and that could be used to increase understanding of children's information retrieval behavior. The Science Library Catalog, built in HyperCard on Macintosh computers, provided access to bibliographic records on science topics through a graphical interface and utilized a bookshelf metaphor to correspond to children's mental models of a library catalog. The Science Library Catalog was designed to minimize the known difficulties children have with existing online catalogs (e.g., spelling, typing/keyboarding, alphabetizing, Boolean logic) and to build on their skills and abilities (e.g., browsing, recognizing relevant topics, navigating hierarchical displays, using a mouse). Since the project began, six experiments were performed in several elementary school libraries and public libraries to test, evaluate, and improve the Science Library Catalog interface (e.g., Borgman et al., 1995; Hirsh, 1996a; Hirsh & Borgman, 1995).
The Browse Interface
The first four versions of the Science Library Catalog interface provided children with a single subject search method -- a hierarchical browsing approach to searching for science materials. Using the Dewey Decimal Classification as a subject hierarchy, the browse interface presented children with a "bookcase" containing ten bookshelves; each bookshelf corresponded to a Dewey classification with only the science and technology shelves available as search options. This structure enabled children to navigate through successive levels of the science and technology hierarchies (the Dewey 500s and 600s) by clicking on bookshelves with a mouse. Figure 1 shows a sample browse method search. The system had several features that were particularly beneficial for children: first, children were able to initiate a search without generating specific search terms; second, there were no error messages in the browse mode of the Science Library Catalog; third, the Science Library Catalog provided children with a map of the library and indicated where the book was located in the library they were using; and, fourth, the system could be used with little or no prior training. Results from the series of experiments involving the four versions of the browsing only interface are summarized in Borgman, Hirsh, Walter, and Gallagher (1995).
The Browse/Keyword Interface
The latest version of the Science library Catalog interface combined the hierarchical browsing search method with a keyword search method. The keyword method was added because prior research indicated that some children, particularly the older elementary schoolchildren, preferred to type in their searches rather than navigating through multiple levels in the science/technology hierarchy (Borgman et al., 1991). Children initiated a keyword search by clicking on a bookworm which was located in the lower left-hand corner of every screen and which asked "Do you want to type?" After children typed in their search query, the system automatically ran each search request through spelling correction and stemming programs. The keyword search method matched children's search terms against the subject-rich portions of the bibliographic record (i.e., the title, subject headings, and notes fields). The search results were presented as a rank-ordered list of shelf topic headings which contained book records matching the search request, as seen in a sample keyword search for books on "kangaroos" in Figure 2. By selecting one of these shelf topic headings, the mouse pointer was automatically placed at the selected bookshelf heading in the browsing structure. The keyword search method was embedded within the browsing structure in order to allow children to move easily between the browse and keyword search methods at any point during the search process and to provide children with context for their search topic. Children were able to make the transition between browse and keyword search methods without leaving their current search.
Research on children's search behavior on electronic information retrieval tools has found that children generally like to search online catalogs and electronic encyclopedias, often better than their print counterparts (Armstrong & Costa, 1983; Alberta Department of Education, 1983). While children tend to be enthusiastic in their use of electronic retrieval tools, they often have difficulty locating specific information when they use them (Vandergrift, 1989). One of the most complex processes is to express an information need in the form of a search request that is appropriate for a search system. Belkin (1980) describes this process in cognitive terms as Anomalous States of Knowledge (ASK). ASK describes the cognitive state involved in choosing the right vocabulary to describe an information need that may not be fully formulated yet.
Children's vocabularies are less extensive than an adult's vocabulary, complicating this process further. Most keyword systems require children to express their information need in the form of a search query to initiate the search. Many children find it difficult to select search terms and then generate alternate search terms …