Nicholson, S. (1997). Using the Internet for fast facts. Internet Trend Watch for Libraries (defunct e-journal) 2(8). Updated and available online at http://www.bibliomining.com/nicholson/fastfacts.html
Please note - This is a reprint of this article retrieved from archive.org. The e-journal "Internet Trend Watch for Libraries" no longer exists. Some notes, in italics, were added in 2003 to bring the information up to date.
Volume 2, Number 8
|Using the Internet for Fast
The Internet is the largest full-text database ever created, and many librarians have inexpensive access to this resource. A plethora of facts can be quickly mined using a few techniques with full-text search tools, such as Alta Vista or Infoseek (Infoseek no longer exists. Current tools to use would be Alta Vista, Google, or Alltheweb) A full-text search tool is a tool where the web database is created by indexing every word from every included page. This article will teach you Internet search techniques to apply when researching a question requiring a short, factual answer. It also offers a few precautions when using the Internet to accomplish this.
The first step is to, with apologies to Jeopardy, phrase the question in the form of an answer. Think about how the question would be answered on a web page, and pick out a short key phrase from that answer phrase. Pick out as few words as you can for this key phrase, but still hold the meaning and uniqueness of the phrase.
Third, once you get to a Web site's page, find the phrase on the page. It might not be apparent at first why a page was listed as containing the phrase, but the phrase will be there (if not, it was probably in a previous incarnation of the page). Use the FIND feature on your browser to search for your phrase. Many times, the phrase may be hidden deep within paragraphs of text, but the phrase should be on the page somewhere. The FIND command will take you straight to your phrase and the answer to your question.
Finally, examine the source. The quality control available in this type of searching is limited to that of full-text search tool you are using. Examine the source, currency and last revision date of the web page to help judge its reliability. If you are unsure, see if there are other pages with confirming or conflicting information. While this still does not guarantee accuracy, if you can find more pages with the same fact, then you can be more confident that the fact is accurate. As with all reference work, always cite the complete URL for the source when giving the answer to a patron.
A full-text search tool is a powerful ally in finding fast facts when properly used. It allows you to find the answers to questions when the patron doesn't have information that is normally indexed (such as a few words from the middle of a poem) or enough information to select a print resource (such as a person's name, but no idea in what field the person works). Abstracting search tools, such as Excite and Hotbot (Excite is now a front for paid placement and Hotbot now is a valid tool for this type of search), can be used as secondary sources, but they lose a lot of usefulness in this type of searching as they just index a small portion of each page. The proper application of these search tools can save you hours of digging through books and articles to find a factual answer, and will assist you in adding the Internet search tools to your toolbox of resources for answering questions.
If you'd like to learn more about the difference between search tools based on the indexing methods of their underlying web databases, see "Beneath the Surface of Internet Search Tools: Differences in Web Databases" (No longer exists) or "Indexing and Abstracting on the World Wide Web: An Examination of Six Web Databases" in the June 1997 issue of Information Technology and Libraries, both by Scott Nicholson. There's also a web version of this information aimed at patron use at http://www.askscott.com/.
[Scott Nicholson is currently working on his doctorate in Information Science at the University of North Texas and works as a private computer instructor and consultant. He has worked as a Reference/Electronic Services librarian at Texas Christian University, and he is active in the American Library Association.] (Dr. Scott Nicholson is now a professor at Syracuse University)
Internet Trend Watch for Libraries is a publication of LEO: Librarians and Educators Online. All contents (c) 1997 by LEO. For information about LEO's services, visit our web site, call (617) 499-9676, or e-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org.