Per Contra Winter 2006-2007
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"Finding (Good) Stuff on the Internet" by Alison Lewis
A friend of mine likens the internet to the Wild West. “Everything’s out there,” he says. “There’s no law and anything goes!” The freedom of the internet is part of what makes it so exciting. Going online can be an adventure, leading you to new knowledge and new experiences you never dreamed possible. But this freedom is a double-edged sword. Much online is useful and good, but the wide-open character of the internet inevitably leaves room for things that are misleading, bad, or even dangerous. How do you find what’s good (or even what’s “best”) on the internet? As a librarian working in an institution of higher learning, this is one of the questions I try to help answer. What follows are some of the tips I share with newer internet users.
Start with a Good Search Engine
Start your search by using a good search engine. Google (www.google.com) is the most popular search engine now available. Its search strategy is sophisticated enough that it consistently provides relevant search results for almost any query. More experienced users appreciate the functionality of Google’s Advanced Search interface (click the link to the right on the basic Google interface to get there) because it allows them to be more specific in their search as well as to limit the results by particular parameters such as language or format.
Other popular search engines include Yahoo (www.yahoo.com), MSN Search (www.msn.com), and Ask.com (www.ask.com, formerly called Ask Jeeves). Dogpile (www.dogpile.com) is a “metasearch engine” that searches all four of the previously mentioned search engines and combines the results in an effort to increase both comprehensiveness and relevancy. Clusty (clusty.com), a newer, less well-known metasearch engine, also searches across several search engines and combines the results. The unique feature of Clusty is that it also “clusters” the results, so that similar categories of information can be looked at together.
If the idea of searching for keywords seems foreign to you, start with Ask.com which allows for natural language searching. This means you can type a question such as “Why do clouds change color?” in the search box, rather than trying to boil your query down to particular key terms. Another user-friendly search tool is the Librarians’ Internet Index (www.lii.org), which provides librarian-approved links to some of the most useful and reliable sites on the internet. Material is arranged topically for browsing, and a search box is available for searching the entire site.
Look at Your Results Critically
It’s NOT “All Free and on the Internet”!
While there is more information out there on the internet than you’ll ever have time to access in one lifetime, it still doesn’t represent the complete universe of all information available. This is particularly true for scholarly materials and any information which has commercial value.
The GoogleScholar search engine (www.scholar.google.com) is currently available in a “Beta” version and is becoming widely used by researchers to find scholarly information online. This tool helps find freely available scholarly information posted on faculty websites, institutional repositories, and the growing (but still small) number of “open source” publishing initiatives. However, many of the hits will lead to sites which request payment in order to access the materials found. Researchers associated with a college or university can set “preferences” on GoogleScholar to let them know which items are available through their institution’s library.
Popular sources of commercial information often have some free content available online. Everything from the New York Times to People magazine has a web presence with some free content available. Many scholarly journals post tables of contents and selected articles online. Full access to all contents and some “web exclusives” are accessible by paid subscriptions, usually at quite affordable rates for individuals.
Many public libraries provide access to subscription databases with a wide range of electronic content. Check your library system’s website or speak with a reference librarian to find out what’s available to you and to get some search tips. Academic libraries also provide access to a variety of electronic databases, many of which are quite specialized and expensive. Due to licensing restrictions, most academic libraries limit use of these proprietary databases to their students and faculty.
The more you search the internet, the more things you’ll find of interest. “Bookmark” favorite websites so that you can easily return to them. Follow suggested “links” from quality sites. Join online communities for people with similar interests who can recommend additional sites. Soon you feel less like you’re sinking in a sea of information, and more like you’re successfully navigating the waters if not riding the waves!