The Importance of Mastering Search Engines

By Balas, Janet | Computers in Libraries, May 1998 | Go to article overview

The Importance of Mastering Search Engines


Balas, Janet, Computers in Libraries


Mastering search engines is one way to handle your never-ending string of reference questions.

We recently purchased a new reference desk for my library, and as I looked at the new desk I noticed how the design reflected many of the changes in our reference services. The desk has wire management features to accommodate computer equipment with all its myriad cables, which reflects both our conversion to an online catalog and our increasing use of the Internet in reference services. The desk is also large enough that two librarians can work at it comfortably, reflecting the increased workload for reference librarians who now must assist patrons with both print and electronic resources.

Assisting patrons with print resources is second nature to most of us, but even experienced reference librarians are less confident when it comes to locating appropriate resources on the Internet. To use the electronic resources of the Internet effectively, reference librarians must learn how to use the various search engines to their best advantage. This is a daunting task since, like the Internet itself, these search engines are constantly changing. Fortunately, there is help available on the Internet for librarians who want to improve their Internet searching skills.

For Librarians from Fellow Librarians

The Bergen County Cooperative Library System has put together a Web page under the heading Search the Internet that is useful to librarians interested in learning to conduct effective searches. The page begins by explaining the differences between subject directory services such as Yahoo! and search engines like Infoseek and AltaVista. It has links to a few of the more well-known directories and search engines, and also offers some brief annotations to help you choose among them. There are also links to several help documents written by librarians.

One link leads to a Web page entitled How to Search the Net by Marylaine Block of the O'Keefe Library at St. Ambrose University. This document provides a good overview of the current strengths and weaknesses of Internet searching and gives you some specific hints on how to improve your technique.

Another link to a help document prepared by a librarian is Answering Reference Questions Using the Internet by Joel Minion of the British Columbia Library Association and the Library Services Branch of the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing, British Columbia. This guide uses a table to step through an analysis of a reference question and suggests approaches based on the type of question. It also has an organized listing of recommended Internet sites for reference librarians.

One final link on the Bergen County Net Reference page that is definitely worth mentioning is the Librarians' Index to the Internet. This directory listing of sites is not as comprehensive as the more well-known Yahoo!, but the sites listed are all accompanied by well-written annotations to help the reference librarian choose the best site for a particular question. The index has a category for searching the Internet with links to many helpful resources for budding Internet searchers.

The Spider's Apprentice

The Spider's Apprentice Web site, referred to as Spidap, was prepared by Linda Monash of Monash Information Services and was designed to help users search the Web more efficiently, and also to provide information on the company's SmartScape information product. Various search engines are rated, and there is an in-depth analysis to explain the rating for each search engine examined. There is also an FAQ document that provides a good introduction to search engines and is especially useful to the beginning searcher, as is the page on planning a search strategy.

More in-depth information and technical detail are available on the How Search Engines Work page, which includes explanations of Boolean search techniques, relevancy rankings, and metatags. …

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