Valuable Clues to Finding
What You Need to Know
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 Journalists
Mary McGuire, Linda Stilborne, Melinda McAdams, Laurel Hyatt
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 Searchers
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 Researchers
1996, 338 pp, $29.95, ISBN 0-910965-22-6
The Online Deskbook
Mary Ellen Bates
1996, 262pp, $29.95, ISBN 0-910965-19-6
Reviewed 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
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
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 (and quirks) 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
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
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
The focus of both is about how to think about, and solve, research
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
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"
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
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
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?'
The Online Deskbook is a reference manual on using the
major online services, such as DIALOG, LEXIS-NEXIS, DataStar, Dow
Jones, America Online, and Compuserve. The major Internet search
engines are also covered. If you use some of these services regularly,
The Online Deskbook's summary of commands, techniques, shortcuts,
and tips will save you time and therefore money.
Ulli Diemer co-ordinates the content and design of the SOURCES
SELECT Online World Wide Web site https://www.sources.com
This article was originally published in the Summer 1997 issue
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