Whenever you set out to use any electronic research source, be it a public web search or a specialized database, there are a few questions you should always ask – four to be exact. You may say there are really five or six important questions, or maybe you think there are only three, and that’s ok. But for me, not three but four is the magic number.
So here are my four questions you should always ask, with examples drawn from some of our favourite databases.
1. What is the SCOPE of the database?
Or what is its reach? How would you describe the collection of documents? What topics are covered? How current, how far back in time? What is the geographic extent of the database and what languages are used?
For an Internet search engine such as Google, the scope is all documents within the reach of its automated web-crawling indexer. But for most sites, the scope is limited by subject, geography, &/or time. For some, such as our Saskatchewan Cases database, the user should have a pretty good idea, based on the title, that the scope is limited by geography and subject matter. But what about time? For that we have a scope note conveniently located in the lower-right corner of the search page. For a complex system of databases like CanLII, the scope note is myriad.
For some online services, such as our Find a Lawyer search, the scope is rigorously monitored and crucial to the database’s usefulness. There is one record for every active (practicing) member of the Law Society of Saskatchewan. It is updated instantly. If a record exists, then that person is an active, licensed lawyer in Saskatchewan. If there is no record, then that individual is retired, suspended, inactive, or otherwise not a currently practicing lawyer in the province.
Stayed tuned for question #2!
[This tip by Ken Fox originally appeared on the Law Society of Saskatchewan Library’s Legal Sourcery Blog]