School of Library and Information Studies

LIS 536 Outline

Digital Reference and Information Retrieval

(Winter 2013, Monday 9:00-11:50am, Room 3-01 & Lab EdSouth 155 A&B)


Dr. Michael McNally
Office: 3-03
Office Hours: Thurs 11am - 1pm, or by appointment
Phone: 780 492-3934

Calendar Description: 

An examination of the integration of digital services into the array of reference services, with an emphasis on information retrieval systems and their effective use by professionals and end users.


At the completion of this course, the students will be able to:

1. Discuss concepts and practices of digital reference services;
2. Use major bibliographic citation databases, OPACs, and Internet information retrieval (IR) systems effectively;
3. Apply their understanding of how digital IR systems work to the formulation and execution of effective search strategies;
4. Carry out effective digital reference, including selection of databases and IR systems for given requests, formulation of search strategies, execution of effective searches, and evaluation of search results.

The measurable Student Learning Objectives for this class are:

• Through in class discussion and exercises, readings and group presentations, students will be able to select, use, manage and assess various digital reference platforms for the delivery of virtual reference services
• Following an examination of IR systems and mechanisms for assessing search engines and their results, students will be able to conduct effective searches in a variety of online IR systems and evaluate and improve the effectiveness of their searches 
• Drawing on lectures, readings, class discussion and comparative assignments, students will be able to select and use a variety of subject and specialty databases and to evaluate which databases are most useful for specific research purposes


The content for this course is grouped in three areas as follows:

Digital Reference: differences between traditional and digital reference, the reference interview in digital environments, digital reference modalities, managing and assessing digital reference services, staffing and training, issues in digital reference

Information Retrieval: search engine architecture, online searching, search strategies, evaluation of IR systems and search results, political and economic aspects of online IR, non-text searching, natural language processing and IR

Databases: subject/discipline specific databases, specialty databases, citation databases, patent databases, federated searching 


Lectures, readings, in class discussions, presentations, assignments, and a guest speaker

Course Relationships: 

Pre-Requisites (PRE): LIS 501, 502, and 503

Required Text:    

There is no required textbook for the class.

Tentative Timetable:

Week 1 (Jan. 7) – Introduction to course; differences between traditional reference and digital reference; overview of online searching

Week 2 (Jan. 14) – Review of search techniques; evaluation of IR systems; evaluation of search results (precision, recall, relative recall)

Week 3 (Jan. 21) – Digital reference interview; email and chat digital reference

Week 4 (Jan. 28) – Managing digital reference services; text (SMS), virtual worlds and other digital reference modalities

Week 5 (Feb. 4) – Assessing digital reference services

Week 6 (Feb. 11) – Issues, challenges and opportunities in digital reference services (privacy, confidentiality, collaborative services, intellectual property)

Note: No class on Feb. 18 (winter reading week)

Week 7 (Feb. 25) – Political and economic dimensions of online searching

Week 8 (Mar. 4) – Non-text/media searching; natural language processing and IR

Week 9 (Mar. 11) – Subject/discipline specific databases

Week 10 (Mar. 18) – Specialty Databases (bibliographic, government, statistical/numerical)

Week 11 (Mar. 25) – Citation databases; patent databases

Note: No class on Apr. 1 (Easter Monday)

Week 12 (Apr. 8) – Value added digital reference; current trends in online searching

Academic Integrity: 

The University of Alberta is committed to the highest standards of academic integrity and honesty. Students are expected to be familiar with these standards regarding academic honesty and to uphold the policies of the University in this respect. Students are particularly urged to familiarize themselves with the provisions of the Code of Student Behaviour ( ) and avoid any behaviour which could potentially result in suspicions of cheating, plagiarism, misrepresentation of facts and/or participation in an offence. Academic dishonesty is a serious offence and can result in suspension or expulsion from the University.

Inclusive Language & Equity: 

The Faculty of Education is committed to providing an environment of equality and respect for all people within the university community, and to educating faculty, staff and students in developing teaching and learning contexts that are welcoming to all. The Faculty recommends that students and staff use inclusive language to create a classroom atmosphere in which students’ experiences and views are treated with equal respect and value in relation to their gender, racial background, sexual orientation, and ethnic backgrounds. Students who require accommodations in this course due to a disability affecting mobility, vision, hearing, learning, or mental or physical health are advised to discuss their needs with Specialized Support and Disability Services.

Recording Lectures: 

Recording is permitted only with the prior written consent of the professor or if recording is part of an approved accommodation plan. 

*Policy about course outlines can be found in Section 23.4(2) of the University Calendar.