Boolean Logic

Searching for the way forward

March 1, 2017

Joseph Janes

Several centuries ago, during the Merovingian period I think, I taught whole courses on online searching. Those skills are still important, and I’m still teaching them in different guises and combinations. The command lines might be gone, but the functionality mostly remains, in lots of little boxes and pull-down menus on bibliographic database systems. The trick is knowing both what to search for and how to use the right tools to get the job done effectively.

I’ve always preferred the AND operator to NOT when trying to refine search results. NOT is too blunt an instrument for my tastes, and it’s too easy to lose good information with it; using AND provides focus and often does a more effective job of narrowing down a big retrieval set.

AND has been on my mind lately. As I write this on the longest night of 2016, in the waning days of the Obama administration, many people feel rudderless, marooned, unsure of what is likely to happen and what to do next. Do we focus on stronger articulation of our principles, despite the potential consequences? Do we figure out ways to work with governments and officials who might be at odds with those principles, which could feel like downplaying or betraying our heritage and ideals? Do we spend our time doing the everyday stuff as the world seemingly goes to hell?

Well, yes. AND. Those things overlap; it’s a delicate balance, but you can stand up for what you stand for while also working to make progress—even if you have to hold your nose now and then—and keep the doors open day to day as well. It’s called “librarianship.”

Here’s another AND. Standing up for our values also means, as we all surely know, that we must be especially careful to provide the highest level and quality of service to people and communities who see the world differently, and who maybe aren’t unhappy about the new direction of the country.

Indeed, the American Library Association Code of Ethics states: “We distinguish between our personal convictions and professional duties and do not allow our personal beliefs to interfere with fair representation of the aims of our institutions or the provision of access to their information resources.” That’s not always easy or comfortable, it’s just crucial because it’s everyone’s library. We absolutely cannot afford to start eroding confidence in who we are and what we do.

We must be especially careful to provide the highest level and quality of service to people and communities who see the world differently.

There are times, however, when NOT is the best option. As there are times when you have to stand up and say no. Long and loud. No to intolerance, bullying, half-truths, ignorance, hate, fear, and worse. No to a worldview that divides, conquers, and belittles. No. No.

In Boolean terms as often in life, there is a third option. We can use OR for a variety of search purposes: spelling variations, synonyms, related terms. OR brings things together; it adds depth, richness, complexity, and diversity; and it finds more stuff. AND can work well in the simple case by coordinating two terms; it’s much more potent and useful when combined with OR to produce more and unexpected combinations, often surprising and delightful.

OR is full of possibilities, it opens the door, it welcomes. It is a reinforcement of one of our strongest values and virtues. As we figure out how to move forward together, I hope that we can do so in a spirit of collegiality, staying true to the principles that bind us as a profession, fighting for what we know is right, speaking truth to power, and consulting widely and broadly to hear the voices of people who are troubled, angry, or afraid in so many ways. Kindness and generosity of spirit toward one another in the process wouldn’t be so bad either.

In the right combinations these tools produce marvelous and unforeseen results, which is something to be hopeful for … but that’s another story


Sadie Peterson Delaney. Illustration: Mary Phelan

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