Librarians have a weird sense of humor. This is now an old joke: The internet is like a library with no catalog where all the books get up and move themselves every night...This was the state of the internet up until 1995 or thereabouts. Finding anything on the internet required comic strip characters like Archie, Veronica and Jughead, and generally you were the one who ended up feeling like a jughead when you rooted around for hours and still came up dry.
The new joke is: The internet is like a library with a thousand catalogs, none of which contains all the books and all of which classify the books in different categories—and the books still move around every night. The problem now is not that of "finding anything" but finding a particular thing. When your search term in one of the popular search engines brings back 130,000 hits, you still wonder if the one thing you're looking for will be among them.
This can be an enormous problem when you're trying to do serious research on the internet. Too much information is almost worse than too little, because it takes so much time to sort through it to see if there's anything useful. The rest of this section will give you some pointers to help you become an effective internet researcher.
Finding reference material on the Web can be a lot more difficult than walking into the Reference Room in your local library.
The subject-classified Web directories described below will provide you with your main source of links to reference materials on the Web. In addition, many public and academic libraries, like the Internet Public Library, have put together lists of links to Web sites, categorized by subject. The difficulty is finding Web sites that contain the same kind of substantive content you'd find in a library. See the section on Reference Sources on the Web for a list of some Web-based reference materials, but please read Information found—and not found—on the Web to understand why it's different from using the library.
Search engines are software tools that allow a user to ask for a list of Web pages containing certain words or phrases from an automated search index. The automated search index is a database containing some or all of the words appearing on the Web pages that have been indexed. The search engines send out a software program known as a spider, crawler or robot. The spider follows hyperlinks from page to page around the Web, gathering and bringing information back to the search engine to be indexed.
Most search engines index all the text found on a Web page, except for words too common to index, such as "a, and, in, to, the" and so on. When a user submits a query, the search engine looks for Web pages containing the words, combinations, or phrases asked for by the user. Engines may be programmed to look for an exact match or a close match (for example, the plural of the word submitted by the user). They may rank the hits as to how close the match is to the words submitted by the user.
One important thing to remember about search engines is this: once the engine and the spider have been programmed, the process is totally automated. No human being examines the information returned by the spider to see what subject it might be about or whether the words on the Web page adequately reflect the actual main point of the page.
Another important fact is that all the search engines are different. They each index differently and treat users' queries differently (how nice!). The burden is on the searcher to learn how to use the features of each search engine. See the links to Search Engines and to sources which have done Evaluations of the various features of Web directories and search engines.
See the Web and internet tutorials in the Links section for online articles about search engines.
A search engine like Google or Hotbot lets you seek out specific words and phrases in Web pages. A directory is more like a subject index in the library—a human being has determined the main point of a Web page and has categorized it based on a classification scheme of topics and subtopics used by that directory. Some examples of directories are Yahoo! and the Internet Public Library. Many of the search engines have also developed browsable directories, and most of the directories also have a search engine, so the distinction between them is blurring.
Reference librarians can often be of great help in planning your internet research. Just as they know their library's collection, they probably have done a lot of research on the internet and know its resources pretty well. They're also skilled at constructing search terms and using search engines, and they're trained to teach others how to search.
To be successful at any kind of online searching, you need to know something about how computer searching works. At this time, much of the burden is on the user to intelligently construct a search strategy, taking into account the peculiarities of the particular database and search software. The section on Skills for online searching will help.
Know how to use your browser for finding your way around, finding your way back to places you've been before and for "note-taking" as you gather information for your paper. A large part of effective research on the Web is figuring out how to stay on track and not waste time—the "browsing" and "surfing" metaphors are fine for leisure time spent on the Web, but not when you're under time pressure to finish your research paper. Lots of colleges have Netscape tutorials - see Web and internet tutorials for links which will supplement the information below.
A+ Research & Writing for high school and college students was created by Kathryn L. Schwartz