Four Books About Online Research

Net Research: Finding Information Online
Daniel J. Barrett
Songline Studies and O'Reilly Associates
1997, 186pp, $35.95, ISBN 1-56592-245-X

The Internet Handbook for Writers, Researchers, and
Mary McGuire, Linda Stilborne, Melinda McAdams, Laurel Hyatt
Trifolium Books
1997, 254pp, $29.95, ISBN 1-895579-17-1

Secrets of the Super Searchers
The Accumulated Wisdom of 23 of the World's Top Online
Reva Basch
Pemberton Press
1993, 1996, 238 pp, $39.95, ISBN 0-910965-12-9

Secrets of the Super Net Searchers
The Reflections, Revelations, and Hard-won Wisdom of 35 of
the World's Top Internet
Reva Basch
Pemberton Press
1996, 338 pp, $29.95, ISBN 0-910965-22-6

By Ulli Diemer

The era of the personal computer unleashed a torrent of hype about user-friendliness and productivity gains, and an equally endless flood of expensive 500-plus-page books to help frustrated users figure out how to use the easy-to-use software.

The Internet, having become an overnight success some 25 years after its birth, has been similarly hyped, with absurd claims that all the information in the world is now at our fingertips. And the shelves of the computer bookstores are groaning under the weight of books written to help us find information on the Internet.

The five books reviewed here are intended for those serious about finding information: researchers, journalists, and library and information professionals.

NetResearch: Finding Information Online, by Daniel J.Barrett, is primarily for newcomers to Internet research.

Barrett provides a clear and systematic introduction to navigating and searching the Net. Technical details are explained clearly and succinctly, but the focus is on what the reader is trying to accomplish, rather than on the specific steps or particular Internet sites and tools.

According to Barrett, the key is to learn general strategies and search techniques and to develop a researcher’s intuition.

NetResearch would be an excellent starting point and desktop tool for someone new to, and a little nervous about, online searching, or for someone who has "surfed" the Web but hasn’t developed the skills required to find information efficiently and systematically.

The Internet Handbook for Writers, Researchers and Journalists covers some of the same ground. It describes tools and strategies, including detailed explanations of how to get connected and how to use your browser to navigate the World Wide Web.

The Handbook’s strength comes from its focus on the needs of journalists and writers, and from its inclusion of Canadian sources of information. Given that many Internet guides assume that the known universe ends at the borders of the United States, the substantive Canadian content is a definite advantage.

The Handbook’s chapter on search strategies and techniques is a solid introduction to the basics. Particularly helpful are discussions of some of the advanced features ’ of the popular search engines. Surprisingly the limitations of the meta-search engines, which negate most of the advanced features of the individual search engines, are glossed over.

Helpful, as well, is the chapter on managing and evaluating the information resources you find online.

Libraries and databases, including media and government sites, are surveyed and described. There’s a useful chapter on the non-WWW side of the Internet, including E-mail, listservs, newsgroups, and FAQs. An extensive resource list is included.

The authors address a number of issues of interest to writers and journalists such as copyright, censorship, citing sources, and the E-mail interview.

They note the disadvantages of online interviews, including the fact that the person being interviewed has an edge in being able to draft his or her answers at leisure, potentially with the help of a PR specialist.

The Handbook deserves a place next to your monitor if you’re relatively new to the Internet but plan to start using it in a serious way.

Secrets of the Super Searchers and Secrets of the Super Net Searchers are both collections of interviews with professional online researchers. The first volume focuses on the use of non-Internet online services such as DIALOG and LEXIS-NEXIS; the second on the Internet.

The focus of both is about how to think about, and solve, research problems.

My first reaction on receiving these books was that if you’ve read one or two interviews with professional researchers, you’ve read them all. I was wrong. It may be a reflection of my own info-lust, but I found myself fascinated by what these professionals had to say about their craft.

Secrets of the Super Searchers especially is full of insights into the zen of searching. Good researchers must be both creative and methodical. They must persevere, yet know when to quit. The single most important "secret" of these 19 women and five men seems to be an educated and disciplined intuition, acquired through experience.

Another "secret" is flexibility. According to Basch, "Veteran searchers don’t believe that online is the One True Path. To the contrary, one of the hallmarks of a super searcher is knowing when not to go online. Many questions can be answered far more easily and cheaply by checking a printed reference source or picking up the telephone."

Technical tips and comments about resources are sprinkled through the text, but the emphasis is very much on research strategies. Several researchers use the "grasshopper" versus "ant" metaphor, another talks about relying on an "educated hunch" to solve a problem. One comments that "You can’t dig up stuff on the Internet like a dog digging up a bone, frantically throwing dirt in every direction. You have to dig like an archaeologist – carefully, layer by layer."

With the growth of the Internet, another issue arises: when to use the fee-based online services, and when to use the "free" Internet.

The consensus seems to be that the Internet is good for finding non-mainstream points of view and basic background information on a particular subject, especially if you are able to find one of the research-oriented or "subject hub" sites which comprise "an individual’s or institution's informed opinion of the best and most useful Internet resources in a particular field." "It’s like stumbling across an authoritative bibliography", as one researcher comments.

Expensive fee-based services like DIALOG and LEXIS-NEXIS are often more cost-effective than the Internet once time is factored in as a cost. An experienced user can often find precise information in response to a particular question far more quickly and reliably on the fee-based online services.

The quantity of information is also far greater: the World Wide Web has roughly 75 million pages, whereas LEXIS-NEXIS has 1 billion, and DIALOG has over 4 billion. The Internet is "a small subset, really, of the world of information", according to one researcher's comment. Another says that the problem with the Internet is that "you will find lots of stuff there, but seldom exactly what you want."

However, it can help you get there. One researcher says "it's not so much the literature you can access as it is the expertise that resides in human beings". In other words, you find enough information to formulate some good questions, and then you call up one or more of the experts or spokespersons identified as being knowledgeable in the field, and you go from there.

This point is made over and over again: "What the Net does best for me, rather than put me in touch with targeted data, it puts me in touch with targeted people who know where the particular data is."

Secrets of the Super Net Searchers is an interesting read, but despite its greater length, I found it less useful than Secrets of the Super Searchers, perhaps because the emphasis veered a little too much in the direction of ‘what are your favourite search engines and why?’

Published Summer 1997 in Sources.

Subject Headings
Internet Research - Primary Sources - Reference Books - Reference Libraries - Reference Sources - Reference Sources/Directories - Reference Sources/Guides to the Literature - Reference Sources/Indexes - Research - Research Methods - Researchers