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Searching Oregon Legislative Bills and Flawed Search Engines

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While searching for recent 2011 Oregon bills, I found a glitch in their search engine. The bill I knew existed wasn’t showing up, no matter what word or number I used to search for it. I double-checked (against the actual bill) and triple-checked by asking colleagues to see if the problem was me rather than the database. It wasn’t me.

The lesson here is: Be careful about relying solely on the Oregon Legislative bill searching utility, Ultraseek. (You can also reach this search engine from the Legislature’s website. Then, click on Bills/Law, and then click on the year you want to search – and then “Search the bills and laws.”)

Keep in mind also that Ultraseek is not an exception to any search engine reliability rule – and it’s actually not too bad as these sorts of free search engines go. The problem exists for all search engines (and databases); they are all flawed (e.g. Google isn’t perfect either –aren’t you shocked, shocked?!)

Gaps exist in databases, the data isn’t complete or is corrupted, the metadata is flawed, and not all words are indexed. This is normal! Database snags and glitches are to be expected. It is when you don’t expect to find snags and glitches and when you trust too much that you get in trouble.

This is one reason, among many, that librarians and other researchers use multiple search tools, print and online and human, when doing serious research. You surely want your doctor and lawyer to be doing really thorough research when you present them with tough medical and legal problems – don’t you?

And you surely listen to your law librarian when she says, “double-check.” Don’t you?

This is well beyond “trust, but verify,” a “quotation” that people still, annoyingly, attribute to former President Reagan, when it originated way before him.

My advice?: Don’t assume and don’t let someone (or something, e.g. a database) else do your research. Double-check. Triple-check if it’s important enough.