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Information Research FAQ v.4.7 (Part 1/6)

Information Research FAQ: Resources, Tools & Training
Archive-name: internet/info-research-faq/part1
Posting-Frequency: monthly
Last-modified: April 2002
Copyright: (c) 2001 David Novak
Maintainer: David Novak <>

                       The Information Research FAQ

            100 pages of search techniques, tactics and theory
          by David Novak of the Spire Project (

    Welcome. This FAQ addresses information literacy; the skills, tools and
    theory of information research. Particular attention is paid to the
    internet as both a reservoir and gateway to information resources.

    This FAQ is an element of the Spire Project, the primary free reference
    for information research and an important source for search assistance.
    Do visit . It is free and compliments this FAQ
    with links, forms and tools.

    This FAQ resides with pictures at and
    as text at

    ***    The Spire Project also includes a 3 hour public seminar titled
    ***    Exceptional Internet Research. This is a fast paced seminar
    ***    supported with a great deal of webbing, reaching to skills and
    ***    research concepts beyond the ground covered on our website and
    ***    this FAQ. has a synopsis.
    ***    I am in Europe, seminaring in Ireland, and Europe though I
    ***    will be returning to the US shortly, and South Australia for
    ***    a seminar this October.

    David Novak -
    The Spire Project : and

    . . Prelude.
    1 .
    . . . . . . Everyday searching has a simple approach.
    2 .
    . . . . . . Searching for specific, quality information demands a more
    complex approach.
    3 .
    . . . . . . Let's understand how information is arranged on the
    4 .
    . . . . . . Each format (book, article, web, etc...) has unique search
    tools and resources.
    5 .
    . . . . . . Specific guidance on libraries, discussion groups and other
    6 .
    . . . . . . Review and discuss types of information in specific fields.
    7 .
    . . . . . . Boolean, proximity, field searching, Dewey and patent
    8 .
    . . . . . . Quality depends on source, currency, search process,
    9 .
    . . . . . . Commercial information industry, libraries and the
    10 .
    . . . . . . Information moves and evolves in fascinating ways.
    11 .
    . . . . . . Steps to improve an online search.
    12 .
    . .


    Many of us unwittingly digest great amounts of information in the
    course of a day. Our information needs are more modest and usually
    repetitive. When we have questions, we reach for a small collection of
    preferred information sources close at hand with a collection of
    assessments as to what is credible and trusted.

    As a child, these sources include the school library, an encyclopedia
    and parents. All the sources are trusted.

    As an adult, these sources include the state library, the newspaper,
    bookstores and current magazines. Adults understand truth has become a
    little more relative, but when the evening news declares presidential
    hopeful George W Bush is ahead by 3% (on a sample of 707) we slip into
    thinking he is leading.

    There is more to information literacy. It is, after all, a profession.
    There are tools you know nothing about and techniques you have never
    heard of. There is a specialized vocabulary just made to confuse you.
    Research, or rather information research (to distinguish it from
    lab-coat style research) is so very much more involved.

    Yet there is great simplicity to research too. Just under the murky
    mist of confusing resources rests a solid platform to stand on. In any
    one field there are just a handful of databases, directories and
    periodicals to consider. After decades of library and information
    industry evolution, clearly valuable sources have already floated to
    the top, monopolizing their respective fields. Most cities have just
    one or two primary newspapers. Large industries like book publishing
    have few book databases and a handful of primary book distributors.

    Enters the internet: not so much a change of information as a
    revolution in access to information. Previously you could justify
    having just a handful of preferred information sources because these
    were the sources easily available. Today, and the future, is filled
    with information close at hand. We are dropped into a morass of
    competing information just waiting to capture our attention, and strain
    both our capacity to absorb information and our capacity to understand
    the differences between sources.

    A great segment of our community will fall back to tried and true
    information sources they grew up with: state library, bookstore, local
    newspaper. The better alternative sources will be ignored for no
    particular reason. The rush of the information revolution will push
    past them. They will only hear of changes when their information needs
    suddenly change - and they are confronted with a vast collection of
    unfamiliar options, and struggle with understanding what sources they

    A smaller segment of our community, by virtue of frequently tackling
    questions best answered with unfamiliar sources, will be driven to
    understand the information world: to become truly information literate.

    There is another story here too. The way our society handles
    information is undergoing some very fascinating changes. Any
    predictions for the future should acknowledge the tension and flow of
    information in our society. Take, for example, the vast surplus of
    information emerging on the internet, and the convulsions of the
    commercial information industry in response. Rather than focusing on
    how information is organized, we can also focus on how information
    becomes organized. The who, where and why of information, the
    sociological perspective, adds meaning to the phrase "information

                        - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
    It was another warm day. The young Egyptian boy strode purposely out
    the gate towards the river. The Nile was low this time of year. Very
    abundant with fish and bird life. With luck, Shakh would return at
    sunset with food for the pantry. Mother would be pleased with that.

    Shakh knew fishing had changed little over the last hundred years. The
    walls of his family's ancestral home had just such a scene of his
    grandfather fishing on the Nile from a small reed boat. The thinly
    carved relief was complete with spear, fish, ducks and Shakh's
    grandmother nearby holding lotus flowers.

    Shakh stopped by old-man Jacob on his short walk to the bank of the
    Nile. He liked the old trader. Years ago Jacob had traveled to the
    Levant and brought back many strange artifacts. Some even came as far a
    field as the Harrapan people who were said to live beyond Sheba, across
    the waves, some three years journey away. He especially liked the small
    black head carved in a style so unlike anything else Shakh had seen.

                        - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

    The Harrapan people lived on the banks of the great Indus river in
    modern-day Pakistan. A great civilization almost on par with the
    Sumerians and the more distant Egyptians, very little remains today.
    They built vast cities of clay brick with rectangular city blocks. They
    built drains, public toilets and state granaries. They were the first
    to populate the Indus river valley. (see

    Little remains. The Harrapan civilization fell with the arrival of the
    Aryan race and the intervening millennia treated their past poorly. The
    arrival of Islam erased much of their history as did the shifting Indus
    river itself. The British used the bricks from one ancient city in the
    construction of a great railway. Only today are the archaeological digs
    once again unearthing the past.

    I search for Harrapa on the internet. Nothing special, just type
    'Harrapa' into any of the popular search engines and I uncover, a website devoted to some recent information from these
    digs. Looks good. Pictures of ancient pots. Children's toys. A map to
    an ancient city.

    Of course, Shakh would have known of the Harrapan civilization. While
    it is uncertain ancient Egyptian ever visited in person, goods and
    rumors traveled far from trader to trader. Ancient Egyptians, while not
    accomplished conquerors abroad, did travel and mix with distant

    Shakh lived in a civilization centuries distant from us, yet both you
    and Shakh know a similar amount about the Harrapan civilization. The
    intervening years have not made everything clear. Even the information
    revolution has not changed the facts. Both you and Shakh have just a
    single source of information about the Harrapan civilization. You have
    the pictures on and our short excerpt here. Shakh has the
    old-man's art object to look at, the old-man's myth of a civilization
    beyond the waves.

    This story carves the act of searching in deep relief. Searching is a
    skill, a trade and to some a profession. It is also just a simple task
    of finding information - something we do every day, in so many ways,
    without any of the difficulties we will get into later in this FAQ.

    The difficulties only emerge when you want to do something spectacular.
    Should you wish to know something specific about the Harrapan
    civilization, or understand something contentious - then we require a
    greater degree of expertise and experience. The search becomes a
    challenging adventure in its own right.

                        - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
    The Nile was always a slow river but three months out of the year it
    burst its banks and flooded the fields, bringing life on the banks of
    the Nile to a complete halt. For these three months Shakh's family
    would move into the ancestral home in the streets surrounding the great
    pyramids. It was an old home, centuries old. Well suited to their needs
    with a storeroom for food, separate rooms for the parents, and an
    active social life in close proximity to others. In many ways, this was
    the most exciting time for young Shakh. For the rest of the year he
    lived in relative isolation in the village by the Nile. For these three
    months, he lived in a city, bustling with activity, construction and

    Shakh had expected this year to be like the last but his father secured
    Shakh an important position - he would be in training to become a
    scribe. Father had grand plans for young Shakh, plans that extended far
    beyond life as a scribe. What's more, with luck and further prosperity,
    Shakh's father had the means to secure his further advance.

                        - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

    Much of ancient Egypt is available for us to read off the walls of the
    many remaining buildings. They were not a literate nation, yet were
    able to adorn almost everything with writing and pictures. They lived
    in the most enlightened society of the day. Years later, Egypt would
    gift the fledgling Hellenic state a full third of their Greek

    This is part of the reason for such an interest in travelling to Egypt.
    It is the visual symbols that inform us and draw us in so deeply.
    Standing before the great religious statues, we begin to feel how it
    was to live and work in that day. To run amok as a young student,
    waiting for the Nile to subside once again.

    Yet, there is much more to knowing ancient Egypt than just the
    monuments and wall reliefs. Years of study has recovered their lost
    language of hieroglyphs. Years of archaeology has unearthed their daily

    History and Archaeology are fine examples of searching in practice.
    Both fields struggle openly with the bias and uncertainty each new fact
    brings forth. Malta is a small island off the coast of Sicily, close to
    Tunisia. Should evidence emerge of ancient Egyptians living on Malta,
    what does it mean? Was Malta an Egyptian conquest or an occasional
    station for their fishing fleet?

    This uncertainty applies to all information, in all situations. One of
    the first events for the new regime in Pakistan was to acknowledge that
    important national statistics, like the national GDP figures, had been
    fudged to a serious and significant degree. Important national
    statistics are not intrinsically true because of their source. This is
    not a problem solely of underdeveloped nations. Rumor suggests that
    during the height of Singapore's land value bubble their national
    figures were unreliable too.

    Searching is a skill and an attitude. In this FAQ we progressively
    unfold the way information is found. Initially, let's cover a simple
    way to find information; a structured approach to an everyday problem.
    Afterwards, we shall look more closely, and with more complexity, at
    the world of information.

                           Searching is Simple.
                                 Section 1

    Searching is simple. It starts with a question. It ends with an answer.
    Everything between is searching. Much of it has to do with the tools
    you use. Select the right tool and you can get to the answer almost by
    default. Luckily, for any given topic there tends to be just a handful
    of must-use tools. For more complicated questions, there are usually
    plenty of people to ask for assistance.

    The answers you are seeking will be found in a selection of different
    formats. In this I mean books, articles, interviews, and more. This is
    a very convenient concept and forms the foundation to all our work both
    here and in the Spire Project. Few research tools cover more than a
    single format; those that do, tend to cover each format poorly. Start a
    search by selecting the specific format you are seeking. Then, select
    your preferred search tool from a small collection specific to that
    format. To get the information, simply follow through and read, search
    or interview. Everything follows naturally.

                             Have a Question.
                             Select a Format.
                           Select a Search Tool.

    There are just a few formats to consider.

    . . . . . Dense, factual, comprehensive and a minimum of 6 months to a
    year old.
    . . . . . Shorter than books but focused on one topic.
    . . . . . Short and shallow. Immediate.
    . . . . . Factual. More reliable.
    . . . . . Very thick. Deeply researched. Esoteric.
    . . . . . Immediate, mixed quality, with limited factual support.
    . . . . . Immediate, varied quality, partly digested.

    Each format has a selection of simple tools to find information. Many
    of these tools will be on the internet - which may mean easily
    accessible. A word of caution: try not to confuse search tools that
    happen to be on the internet with searching internet information. The book catalogue is a search tool useful in locating books.
    Though on the web, searching Amazon is part of a book search, not a web
    search. A search of the Reuters newswire is a news search, not a web
    search, even though Reuters releases current news on the web. Each
    format should remain distinct in your mind.

    Tools to Find Books
    1) Some books, particularly classics, are free on the internet through
    efforts like Project Gutenberg.
    2) Libraries allow you to read books. Library catalogues are frequently
    3) The largest libraries, like the Library of Congress and the British
    Library, list millions of books in their online catalogues.
    4) Most currently available 'in print' books are listed in national
    Books-in-Print databases.
    5) Each country maintains a special government publication database.
    6) Lastly, online bookstore catalogues like that of Barnes & Noble,
    list a sizeable portion of current in-print books.

    Tools to Find Webpages
    1) Global search engines index hundreds of millions of webpages for
    free text searching. Consider Altavista and All-the-Web.
    2) Global directories list resources by category. Consider Yahoo or the
    Open Directory Project.
    3) Regional search engines and directories focus more tightly on
    regionally important topics.
    4) Lastly, more specialized search tools, from search engines which
    focus on specific topics (like maths or government webpages), services
    which link you to important topic-specific websites, and services which
    manually review websites, all can take you further.

    Tools to Find News
    1) Current news is found in newspapers and the evening news. News clips
    can be delivered electronically, or purchased through specialist news
    clipping services.
    2) Newswires redistribute regional news to a larger audience. Many
    newswires release their text news free online.
    3) Specialized search engines like NewsBlip and TotalNews aggregate
    current online news.
    4) State libraries archive past copies of regional papers.
    4) Individual newspapers maintain libraries of previous articles. Many
    are available as commercial databases.
    5) Larger commercial databases unite the news from many prominent
    newspapers. These databases of news articles stretch back many years.

    This story is repeated with all the formats information comes in.

    To drum this in with repetition, searching starts with a question.
    Select the format (book, news or webpage). Next, select one or more
    tools from our short list of search tools for that format. Want to
    understand the lifecycle of the spider? A book should prove useful.
    Let's look at either our local library book catalogue or a big
    commercial bookstore catalogue like Barnes & Noble (

    Search. Read. Voila, the lifecycle of the spider.

    If searching appears a little boring at this point, you have not
    visited a library recently. The excitement comes in finding the
    information. The rest is dull indeed.

                        - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

    The information revolution washes over us, picks us up and pushes us
    forward like so much driftwood. From now on our lives will forever be
    awash with information. We will eat it. Breathe it. Live in it. Drown
    in it. Some of us will even learn to live for it. Those most capable
    will have the skills to search, sift and sort information.

    The information revolution is not about primary research, lab coats and
    discovery. It is about a surplus of information. The searching we have
    just discussed is not a particularly creative process. Simple searching
    is not sufficient to deal with the great tide of information moving
    against us. But then, simple searching lacks finesse. Simple searching
    is, well, simple.

    Searching is one of those most delightful tasks where skill is
    everything. A search without talent will give you just a taste. Like
    pottery perhaps. Anyone can get something but only an expert can
    accomplish wonders. Quality information, reliable answers, effective
    coverage of resources; it takes skill to get to this level.

    Advances in technology and the delivery of search assistance has made
    searching easier than ever before. Many search tasks can be
    accomplished without any experience. With more challenging questions a
    novice will get results - results they will be proud of. But not
    results they should be proud of. With experience, you will recognize
    how much more is possible.

    Let's proceed by adding a little more complexity.

                           Searching is Complex
                                 Section 2

    Your value as a searcher is directly related to the number of resources
    you can reach for quickly, and your skill at phrasing a research
    question. Consequently, as a searcher, you will work hard at building
    ready access to a range of resources. You also work hard at
    understanding the special characteristics of collections of

    The technical name for complex searching is 'Information Research'. I
    prefer to think of information research as an effort to locate answers,
    efficiently. Information Research is not vague browsing of available
    information for something that interests you. It is not browsing the
    library bookshelf or reading the newspaper, nor is it internet surfing.
    Information research is searching with a purpose ... and it is hard

    Research is also an art form. The skills, tools, and resources we work
    with are only the canvass and paints of an artist. Research extends
    from commercial, legal, reporting, through the skills of interviewing,
    database searching, and research analysis using books, articles,
    experts and patents. Research is so large a field, involving so many
    skills, tools and resources, you will quickly find you do not wish to
    learn it all.

    At the heart of information research lies a simple motto: "Someone,
    somewhere, probably knows the answer."

    To quote The Information Broker's Handbook (Sue Rugge and Alfred
    Glossbrenner): "As information brokers, we shouldn't consider ourselves
    capable of providing solutions... What we 'can' provide, and what sets
    a really good information broker apart from the rest, are resources. We
    can provide the client with the kinds of information he or she needs
    ... that make it possible for individuals to solve their problems."

    Let this sink in. We are not experts in the field we are researching.
    Collecting information on the moons of Jupiter? Do not pretend to be an
    astronomer. We are only experts at the tools for gathering information.

    A Quick Introduction to Effective Searching.

    1) Searchers work hard to properly frame the question.
    2) Searchers know the technology, know where to look.
    3) Searchers know you can ask.

    Step One: Properly Frame the Question
    The preparation of your question is critical. There is a galaxy of
    difference between a young student asking, "I am interested in trees",
    and a specific, attainable question like "Where would I find a tree
    surgeon I can talk to?"

    The information sphere is very large and rather confusing. Each item of
    information has aspects of authenticity, accuracy, reliability, and
    bias. Information comes in many formats: interviews, books, articles,
    statistics. We learn about information from many sources: literature,
    discussion, resource lists, experience. There are also personal issues:
    budget, time, depth and purpose.

    With all this to think about, we must be very careful about each
    question we ask. This issue is vital once we start an article search,
    and can easily mean the difference between 5 concise articles, and
    hundreds of general articles. The essence of our question is the manner
    with which we approach the information sphere. The question directs our

    One key is to treat searching as an art, much like painting or
    photography. The true mark of an artist, and the primary step wanna-be
    artists miss, is visualizing what you want before you begin.

    When searching, sit down and visualize what a successful search would
    look like in this situation. How many pages? How many documents? What
    kind of authors and what kind of quality of document? Go through the
    whole gamut of different types of research tools and describe it. Would
    a simple three-line newspaper article be a success? Would a 20-year-old
    dissertation be acceptable? Would a short conversation with an expert
    suffice? Would all three together suffice? (This approach works
    exceptionally well with internet research too.)

    If you can phrase a question in a way that lends itself to your
    resources, you are far more likely to get the answers desired. Oddly,
    this often means you are asking for places where the information
    resides rather than asking directly for the information.

    A novice starts with a question like, "What can I do for my exceptional
    child?" You should rephrase this question immediately. "What resources
    will help me help my exceptional child." These are both valid questions
    but the second question has a distinct answer - the first is far too
    vague. Other questions could be "What are other parents doing for their
    exceptional child?" or "Who can help advise me on how to teach my
    exceptional child."

    Now we shape the question to get precise answers. "Where do I find a
    definitive list of associations?" (or a search for "+association
    +directory") works much better than, "What association works with
    exceptional children?" What about, "Who would know of associations for
    exception children?" and, "Are there pamphlets of advice for parents of
    exceptional children?" and, "What umbrella organizations/specialist
    libraries exist for exceptional children?"

    Questions are not right or wrong, just better or worse at illuminating
    certain aspects of the answer. Make sure your questions illuminate
    something useful.

    There are ways to frame questions for commercial databases, for
    research assistance, for interviews, for getting the truth from to your
    children. Your skill in phrasing the question has a lot to do with the
    results. Poor questions tend to come back and haunt us later when you
    miss relevant information. Set aside ample time to refresh and reframe
    your questions.

    Step Two: Know the Technology, Know Where to Look.
    Research rests on understanding the technology and an awareness of the
    resources. In the example above, a directory of associations does
    exist. Here in Australia it is the "Directory of Australian
    Associations", found in most important Australian libraries. The
    Australian "Department of Education" has a major interest in promoting
    exceptional children. In Western Australia, Infolink, a community
    information service, should have a record of major community groups for
    exceptional students. I have no direct knowledge of umbrella
    organizations or specialist libraries, though I expect both the
    education department and Infolink would. A quick search of some large
    libraries may help us find some of the pamphlets.

    Knowing of specific resources is helpful. It is great if you live next
    door to the president of Mensa. You have easy access to someone
    knowledgeable, able to give his or her take on the situation.

    Knowing the tools to help you find resources, the meta-resources, is
    vital. So what if we do not know exceptional students come under the
    Department of Education. Do we know who to ask to find the government
    department involved? If you do not know of the directory of
    associations, who or where would you look for one? Being unfamiliar
    with meta-resources is a serious handicap - you will find yourself
    searching hours for something a professional would do on the phone
    while drinking coffee.

    Keep in mind the Spire Project is dedicated to providing you some of
    this experience. Our web articles should suggest directions to look.
    But there are limits to how we can help. At some point you simply must
    sit down with the Kompass Directory, or the Gale Directory of
    Databases, or the Australian Bureau of Statistics library, and become
    familiar with getting to all the relevant information.

    Another must, for all searching, is experience searching electronic
    databases with complex research queries - a difficult task only made
    better with practice. As a general rule, if you don't use Fields,
    Proximity and Boolean search terms, you are doing it wrong. Most people
    do it wrong.

    Step Three: Know You Can Ask.
    There is very little mystery about professional research. Lots of
    people are experienced in different aspects of this field. My personal
    weak point is in direct interviewing where as I am a pioneer in
    secondary resource research. This is OK. In fact I use this liberally
    to determine the skill of professional researchers - do they know their
    own limits? The field is much too large to be an expert in all its

    The positive site to this is many people welcome requests for help. I
    enjoy asking librarians questions. I also ask my customers, my
    suppliers and other professional researchers. Never get caught in the
    trap of feeling you know what to do. The joy in this profession is that
    most people do not expect you to be an expert in their field, just an
    expert in your field: particularly the meta-resources. Even if it
    requires a polite reminder, customers will appreciate you asking them
    for likely keywords in difficult searches. I always make a habit of
    asking librarians if I am missing something. A librarian is always
    fluent in their collections and I frequently locate real gems this way.
    (As an example, my state library arranges computer books in two sets,
    one Dewey and another in an alternative structure. Who would have

    Especially if you are just a student, always keep your ears open. You
    will frequently find yourself in the presence of some expert in some
    facet of research telling you something you already know. Consider
    carefully before you interject... Your expert may be about to explain
    something new to you.

    Information research is a dedication to learning. At its heart is a
    collection of specific research skills, an awareness of research tools,
    and a gifted mind. - Oh, and a large amount of coffee. Without
    knowledge of and access to relevant research-worthy resources, your
    research will be severely limited and doubtful. This is why much of
    your work becoming an effective researcher involves learning about the
    resources and meta-resources for your field. Much of our work in the
    Spire Project is drawing your attention to relevant resources.

    Before we progress to specific resources for specific formats (books,
    webpages, news), let us attack head on the role of the internet in
    information research. This should surprise you.

                           The Internet Format.
                                 Section 3

    As Shakh became more proficient with writing, father wrote more
    frequently of the family deity. Horus, the falcon god, had long watched
    over his family. Horus sees all, his father would write, and even
    across the many miles separating you from us, Horus will watch over you
    and keep you close. It was a great comfort to Shakh to have the family
    deity looking after him.

    Shakh too devoted himself to a life of watching and knowing.

                        - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

    We have discussed how information comes packaged in certain
    standardized formats like books, articles or news clips. Each format
    has particular qualities and standards that reflect the way the
    information is prepared. For example books are dense, factual,
    comprehensive and a minimum of 6 months to a year old.

    So how can we apply this newfound wisdom to the internet?

    Let's start at the beginning. The internet is an inexpensive and
    pervasive system for the delivery of data. It is also the medium of a
    dramatic shift in the way we access information.

    A (1) dramatic drop in the cost of publishing is fuelling (2) the
    liberation of information from previously closed systems, leading to
    (3) an emergence of alternative funding for certain public resources
    and (4) an eagerly awaited 'direct to consumer' commercial information

    The first mental knot to untie is the separation of internet resources
    into distinct formats. Electronic books share most of the qualities of
    books published on paper. News stories found on the web share all of
    the qualities of news in your local newspaper. The fact they are
    electronic or appear as webpages has nothing to do with it. News is
    news. Electronic books are almost books.

    But if online news is news, and online books are almost books, and both
    are not internet formats, what is an internet format?

    The search-by-format method is a concept to simplify and understand the
    many information resources which exist in the world. The concept is
    only as valuable as it is successful at enlightening us. As to the
    internet, we have more to learn, but could safely divide the internet
    into several formats at this time, perhaps webpages, online discussion
    and ftp resources. Yet this is largely superficial. The real value
    comes from understanding the qualities of different types of webpages.
    We shall divide the webpage format further.

    Must we really learn this?
    You would be pardoned for equating searching and the internet. Much of
    the hype surrounding internet search tools builds the illusion that the
    skill of searching can somehow be distilled computationally then
    delivered to you electronically. Through the wonders of modern science,
    you can have the best information at your finger tips without having
    learn anything of search technology.

    This is a pervasive lie (or marketing fiction). The electronic research
    industry has been around for decades and has worked on this problem for
    some time. No upstart internet guru has invented a technique to
    suddenly transform the search process. Such thinking would work in
    section two (Searching is Easy) but is the first illusion we must
    shatter for you to progress.

    Case in point, Lycos and All-the-Web search engines use the same
    database of webpages. This database is growing rapidly, it stood at
    350,000,000 webpages in June 2000 and hopes to reach one billion
    webpages by the end of 2001. It stands as a grand achievement in
    organization, right?

    Wrong. Years ago I was using a unified database of news called Global
    Textline (no longer available but replaced by others). It had an
    astounding four billion news articles available for advanced text
    searching! Four billion news items, representing many years of news
    from all over the world. This was superficially 10 times the size of
    the current All-the-Web search engine.

    No, the internet does not even hold the record for being the largest
    information field. Oh, it will surely surpass the quantity of
    commercial information, and superficially we could say it may already
    have achieved this. But the internet is not a new medium for
    information research. It is emerging as a new resource, not a new

    The internet is a new medium for business - most businesses have never
    incorporated the immediacy or global nature of internet involvement, so
    considerable rethinking is required. The internet is a new medium for
    publishing for almost all of us; very few of us published
    electronically before the internet emerged. The internet is NOT a new
    medium for research. Information researchers have been working
    electronically for years. The internet is just a new resource we can
    reach for with strengths, weaknesses and peculiar traits we must

    By way of an example, let us compare Link Analysis as used in Google
    and Raging (of Altavista) with the process of editorial vetting as used
    in scientific journals.

    Through the magic of link analysis, we can make certain assumptions
    about the value of a webpage by adding up the number of other pages
    linking to that page. In its simplest form, webpages with at least 100
    inbound links from other websites are judged to be quality, valuable
    resources. A webpage without any inbound links has the suspicion of
    being of poorer quality. After all, no one has thought it valuable
    enough to add a link to their further resources page.

    This logic has some serious shortcomings. Firstly, the process rewards
    long-term projects that have been online long enough to earn links. A
    brilliant new webpage would have few links - yet. It would be ranked
    poorly, undeservedly. Secondly, link analysis rewards websites over
    webpages. The pages with the most links are often homepages. Rating
    homepages over second level webpages works at odds to keyword
    searching. Our keywords will be found in specific, perhaps second-tier
    webpages. Links go to the top level. Thirdly, link analysis is a mass
    market, popular technique. You are banking on the intellectual finesse
    of a mass of mindless computer users much like yourself. It is the same
    kind of popular democratic selection that votes B-grade actors into the

    Let's contrast this with the process of editorial vetting used in
    scientific journals. Each article is reviewed by a selection of
    knowledgeable peers who understand the topic is great depth. Each
    article is further improved by the editing of the journal editors, and
    by self-editing, for there is great competition and prestige at stake.
    Only a handful of the many submissions are judged worthy and appear in
    the printed journal. Success places the successful in the standard of
    record; stamped with an external statement of truth and importance.

    Of course, the logic of editorial vetting also has shortcomings.
    Firstly, the process is time and effort intensive. Many of the most
    important journals will delay six months or more between submission and
    publication. In our digital era this is increasingly unacceptable.
    Secondly, the number of submissions accepted are at odds with the pace
    of development. So much more happens in the world than can be digested
    in this manner. Thirdly, editorial vetting supports the clannish
    behavior leveled against the upper echelons of science. New and novel
    developments have difficulty floating to the top if the peer review
    process should not be open to new ideas.

    If link analysis is popular and democratic, editorial vetting is
    elitist and autocratic. Both approaches have pros and cons.

    Once you have absorbed the drama between link analysis and editorial
    vetting, please do not retain the belief that your search needs will be
    completely solved for you. Searching is a complex, overgrown garden and
    its time to get your hands dirty.

    So what does the internet have to do with searching?
    The internet changes searching in two ways. Firstly, the webpage is a
    new format to contend with.

    "Webpages are often of unknown age, of only guessed at quality and
    potentially the easiest information to retrieve. There are many points
    of entry to web resources but search tools differ. Try to match your
    search tool to your question."

    The internet is also a conduit to many of the pre-existing tools for
    searching other formats (books, news, interviews).

    With an internet connection, we can reach database retailers and many
    commercial quality databases like LOCOC, ERIC, MOCAT and AGIP directly
    from the source. We can also remotely search the catalogue of most
    libraries in the world. These are not new resources, just new ways to
    reach them.

    In this day of interconnectivity and change, it is too tempting to
    declare the information industry is in rapid flux. Everything I have
    learned suggests this is not so. There are some changes associated with
    new channels but by and large the process of searching for information
    remains the same.

    Let's look briefly at news as an example. News articles are written by
    the reporter, sold to international newswires which then distribute
    these stories to interested newspapers and news channels, that
    incorporate the news into your newspaper or evening TV news.

            Journalist - Newswire - Newspaper/News show - You.

    News would also be added to commercial databases of past news. These
    databases are then provided to database retailers like Dialog or
    Lexis-Nexis who sell occasional access to you.

  Journalist - Newswire - Commercial Database - Database Retailer - You.

    With the internet, newswires have also provided their text news to
    online sites. Text news is thus available for you to browse or search.

            Journalist - Newswire - Internet News Sites - You.

    I draw your attention to several facts. The fundamental nature of the
    industry has not changed. Journalists and newswires still impart upon
    the news the same nature as before. It is short, shallow, immediate. It
    is created to journalistic standards.

    If you wish to search past news, you must still reach for the
    commercial database, most likely through a database retailer. Searching
    for news online only goes back two weeks at most.

    Lastly, to date only the text format for news is widely disseminated.
    Sometimes a couple of pictures are included but the visual news, as
    used in the evening news on TV, is sure to remain priced beyond public

    So what has changed? There is another venue for you to pick up the
    news. There are opportunities for new databases to be created, some of
    limited time (like - a database of current news on other
    websites). Little else has changed. The creation and dissemination of
    news remains pretty much as before the internet arrived.

    Let us look even more briefly at book publishing. Books are produced by
    authors, improved by editors, published by publishers, marketed by
    bookstores, then purchased by you.

             Author - Editors - Publishers - Bookstores - You.

    Today we have a couple of new online bookstores - and a large number of
    new old online bookstores (existing bookstores now selling online). We
    have a collection of free books online (largely classics like
    Shakespeare, which strangely, were immediately published as really
    inexpensive paperback classics available in airports everywhere).

    There are also a range of very useful commercial quality book databases
    which have become free to search online. I am thinking the government
    publication catalogues (MOCAT [US], AGIP [Australia] and Stationery
    Office Online Catalogue [UK]) and the online catalogues for the Library
    of Congress (LOCOC) and the British Library.

    Lastly, the online catalogue to the large bookstores like Barnes and
    Noble, Amazon and The Internet Bookshop (UK's WHSmith) can provide a
    free and fast database of books in print, though not as good as the
    commercial Books-in-Print databases. Of course, any local bookstore
    will offer to search books-in-print for you, so this is not as
    revolutionary as it might at first appear.

    In summary, we have a collection of recently discounted book databases
    we can more easily search, we have additional sites to buy books, and
    little else. The creation and dissemination of books remains pretty
    much as before the internet arrived. Has the book industry changed? Not

    The most remarkable change has been the emergence of group discussion
    online, the emergence of a new format for information (like the
    webpage) and the opportunities to connect faster to a whole range of
    pre-existing searchable resources.

    This is the reason why we discuss searching-by-format. Later, at the
    end of this FAQ, we return to this topic and show that the real
    revolution is not in resources or industry or search tools but a
    revolution in immediate access. Access, it turns out, enriches the art
    of searching.

    On counterpoint, as an information resource, the internet can still be
    much too limited for many situations. If we are not careful, searching
    the internet becomes no better than browsing the shelf of your state

    What most impresses me about the internet is the promise of changes in
    the future. The internet as a system suggests radical improvements to
    the current decade-old systems that have attained their search-worthy
    status. What impresses me most are the improvements mostly still in the
    future, not yet proven, set to remain promising ventures for a time.

    This is not to say internet research can not be rewarding. In some
    fields like computer studies, the internet has already surpassed parity
    with books, articles and associations. Just when you will consult the
    internet as a research-worthy resource depends on cost, effort, and the
    quality of the information returned. This judgement call requires more
    than a little experience.

    Value is important. I sincerely hope we can suppress our enthusiasm for
    free information in favour of a truer appraisal of the value of
    information. Make no mistake, commercial information is brilliant. It
    is almost heresy to even compare commercial information with the
    results of a few hours on the internet.

    Internet Information Theory
    Let us agree the internet is great fun to surf but more challenging
    when you have a specific question in mind.

    To improve our search skills, we begin by understanding how information
    is arranged on the internet. Contrary to myth, information is not
    disorganized but rather organized very carefully along clear patterns.
    Many patterns are specific to the information format (text document,
    webpage, email message, printed article). Further patterns match the
    way we become aware of information, or are specific to the information
    systems (mailing list, FAQ, peer-reviewed journal). Your understanding
    of the strengths and weaknesses of each pattern, each format, each
    system, guides your search for information. We shall start by
    shattering the internet, and commenting on the many pieces.

    Three Definitions of the Internet
    Do be careful when using the word 'internet'.

    1_ The internet is a physical network; more than a million computers
    continuously exchanging information. The internet allows us to transfer
    information around the world.

    2_ The internet is a landscape of information available on almost every
    topic imaginable. This information appears almost chaotically
    distributed to the world but holds clear patterns. For instance,
    linking information together are various structures like government web
    links, search engines and FAQ documents.

    3_ The internet is a community of 500+ million individuals. These are
    real people who choose to interact, discuss and share information

    In this example, let me just draw your attention to the way most of our
    research effort focuses on the second definition: a landscape of
    information. Much of the best information originates in the third
    definition: the internet is a community. Sometimes it is far more
    effective to ask real people than search the information cyberspace.

    What I just mentioned is not so important as the technique I just used.
    I broke the large seemingly chaotic system into smaller pieces: pieces
    that hopefully make more sense. Eventually, when we've made sense of
    the little bits, perhaps we can comment astutely on the big-picture.

    Information, transaction, entertainment
    There is a triad of functions to all online activity:

    Function      -  Activity  -      Unit
    Information   -  Research  -  The Fact or Conclusion
    Exchange      -  Business  -  The Transaction
    Entertainment -  Play      -  The Experience

    Each internet function grows at a different rate and moves in a
    different direction. The development of forums is firmly in the
    smallest segment dealing with information. This segment is quite poorly
    organized and confusing. The entertainment function in contrast is well
    financed and graphically innovative with clear, profitable

    Much of the web is prepared with Exchange or Entertainment in mind.
    "Brochureware" (purely promotional webpages) is rarely required for
    research but is critical to securing a transaction. Entertainment
    related or just entertaining websites abound. Let us recognize just how
    few webpages are information & research related.

    My own experience suggests we are just beginning to see the movements
    towards profiting from providing information. Direct selling of
    information is still chaotic and unrewarding.

    Information Formats
    The way information is packaged has a great bearing on the content,
    quality and use of the information. This theme is evident throughout
    the work of the Spire Project, and is particularly applicable to
    internet information. Webpages, text files, software, email and
    database entries each have particular qualities. Each shapes,
    constrains and restricts the informative content. These particular
    qualities apply irrespective of the information involved.

    Books are dense, factual, a little old. Articles are short, sharp, more
    recent. News is puff, introductory, immediate. Each way the information
    is packaged, each format, presents the information to set standards.

    Information formats on the internet are the same. Webpages are
    graphical, technical to produce, and not easily updated. FAQs are
    easier to maintain, text only, and attract more peer review. Mailing
    lists are simpler still, text, short, immediate, very peer-reviewed,
    characterized by discussion and resource discovery. Newsgroups are
    characterized by extremely low costs, vulnerable to trashing, poorly
    managed. Email is simple use, one-to-one discussion.

    Let's look at books more closely. Books are created by authors who have
    something to write. Books are printed and marketed by Publishers to the
    bookstores that then provide it to the readers. Each facet of this
    process defines the resource. Books have quality, editorial vetting but
    minimal peer-review, marketable value and a potentially lengthy
    preparation time.

    When it comes to research, why look for a book when investigating
    digital money? Books would just have the wrong qualities - would
    present the information poorly. We need a more current format (digital
    money is a fast moving topic), and a more peer-reviewed format (books
    have editorial vetting but not intrinsic peer-review). Why not search
    for a mailing list, an FAQ, or an association website. These formats
    have qualities more appropriate to our question.

    Information Preparation
    Information flows also impress patterns on internet information. Most
    information is transplanted to the web - first created elsewhere. The
    source of information imparts as much pattern as the eventual format
    the information takes.

    Information may appear as a webpage, and conform to our expectations
    for all webpages but the information may have been prepared from the
    discussion on a mailing list - and thus enjoy a more topical, specific,
    timely and peer-reviewed quality.

    Let's look at FAQs. The best resource in the world on copyright law is
    the musings of a group of copyright lawyers who form the copyright
    mailing list. The copyright FAQ supported by this group is a logical
    document summarizing much of the discussion of this mailing list. FAQs
    are vetted by the news.answers team, then automatically mirrored around
    the world. From its origins in the mailing list, the FAQ is a
    peer-reviewed document, often full of links to further resources,
    topical, knowledgeable and factual. As an FAQ, the document is not
    immediate, graphical or financially rewarding (some FAQs stagnate).

    Only some internet information is created within the internet
    environment. The concept of 'brochureware' describes the common traits
    to promotional webpages directly prepared from paper promotional

    One of the more exciting trends is the movement of information from the
    dusty shelves of government offices and association libraries to their
    more accessible websites. The quality of information retained in your
    average government agency, from quality research reports, to detailed
    studies, to current industry monitoring is very high. These qualities
    are then brought over to the web format. Such web-documents tend to be
    isolated (not linked to other related resources) and perhaps a little
    behind the time line but of a generally high quality.

    An exciting holistic view of the internet information landscape is
    based on these descriptions. Imagine, for a moment, information flowing
    through a collection of systems. At certain points, information groups
    together, and generates new, perhaps higher quality information, which
    then flows in a different system, a different direction, to different

    The flow of information from one person to another, from one format to
    another, imprints qualities to the information along the way. Each
    organization, or subsequent re-organization, imparts specific styles
    and conventions and quality to the result.

    Publishing Motivation
    Let us proceed to a third set of patterns. Information appears on the
    internet for one very specific reason. Someone Publishes (DUH). The
    motivation behind publishing colours the information. This is a pattern
    we can use to quickly judge the contents of a webpage.

    Ask yourself who is publishing, and why.

    One of the biggest publishing segment a year ago were individuals
    publishing documents derived from their personal expertise. A typical
    document would be one with minimal peer review, a list of aging links
    to further resources, simple graphics, variable to short length, prone
    to bias but moderately reliable because the publisher knows their topic
    well. These pages are often located on web pages with private
    sub-directories (usually starting /~name/).

    Commercial sites publish mainly for the promotional value. Their
    secondary purpose is to provide sales information to prospective
    clients. Rarely do commercial sites go beyond this. Commercial webpages
    often reside on their own domain name, as a .com, or in sub-directories
    - without the tilde symbol. Commercial sites also tend to age badly.
    They are very noticeable from their front page.

    Government agencies are emerging as valued publishers. Slowly their
    dormant information becomes available through this new medium.
    Currently almost all government documents on the internet also appear
    in print, meaning they are factual, exhaustively reviewed, tend to be a
    little old (but age well), and come from highly paid knowledgeable
    people who believe it is their duty to inform others. Such documents
    are lengthy and appear on .gov domains.

    These patterns are simple to see.

    Grant-funded projects create brilliant research resources and hold much
    promise in pushing the limits of this technology. I am eager to see the
    results of the US Patents project, and appreciate the value of having
    Supreme Court rulings on the internet. Often such projects focus deeply
    on content. Most projects reside on educational servers and are widely
    discussed within knowledgeable groups.

    Associations publish association-kind-of-things. Most are initially
    just like the commercial webpages. With time such sites become much
    more factual and research-worthy. Most associations are dedicated to
    developing awareness of their chosen topic, albeit coloured by their
    chosen bias. Few associations are significant publishers but in time,
    this segment will begin to liberate dormant information within

    Let's summarize. The key is to always watch who is the publisher. We
    can assume a great deal, quickly. We are unlikely to find the latest
    changes to patent law from government or commercial publishers. Such
    organizations are simply not motivated to present such information.

    Promoting Information
    Publishing is one achievement but you and I will never read any
    information until we learn it exists. This simple fact creates even
    more patterns to internet information. Knowledge of information moves
    through set routes on its way from writer to reader.

    Promotion is not simple. It is a process that takes time, effort and
    perhaps money. Information without serious promotion tends not to be
    promoted far from the source. Another way to phrase this; you must
    search close to the source to find poorly promoted information.

    A search engine indexes pages relatively indiscriminately. This also
    means a site of quality is not likely to reach your attention. The odds
    are not good, and from a promotion point of view, search engines
    generate minimal traffic to your webpage. Search engines also drop you
    rather randomly into a website. It is often necessary to move up a
    directory to understand the purpose and motivation of a site you find

    Information published through advertising tends to have a financial
    payoff for the promoter. This kind of information tends to be
    promotional information. Brochureware.

    The alternatives are to promote a webpage or website through one of the
    referral tools. Each such tool accepts links on some criterion. Each
    tool you use to locate information also selects particular types of
    information for your attention.

    If you arrive at a document by recommendation through a mailing list,
    the document is likely to be recent, on-topic and specific to the
    purpose of the mailing list. Alternatively, (for poor mailing lists) it
    will be wildly off topic and trash. You are unlikely to see referrals
    to old documents or documents of historical importance. These are the
    qualities most acceptable to the mailing list environment.

    Directory trees, FAQs, guidebooks and related promotion tools all work
    as historically important documents. In the past, such resources list,
    describe and alert people to relevant information for the field.
    Slowly, over time, this function becomes acknowledged, reinforced and
    promoted. Time is the essence of this fame.

    Webpages or websites found through historically important documents, by
    their nature, tend to be long lasting websites with lasting importance
    in the field. Such documents point to other similar documents or
    websites that have achieved a long-lasting importance. You are unlikely
    to find specific documents but rather sites that focus or bring
    together information. In short, there is little motivation to link to
    specific webpages, when a link to an important website is just as good.

    Similar generalizations can be made of each type of promotional tool,
    and become important in rapidly seeking our information which matches
    our intention, as well as summarizing the likely motivation, and bias,
    of webpages we are interested in.

    Information Clumps
    Information Clumps. Information is created, nurtured, develops, gets
    transplanted, gets arranged and then becomes visible through a process
    which brings similar information together.

    As we have discussed, there are factors deeply affecting all
    information on the internet. Motivation, Preparation, Format and
    Promotion all define the quality and content of any given item of
    information. With so many influences, we should not be surprised to
    learn information naturally groups together. In reality, there is
    nothing natural involved - it is a social phenomenon reinforced each
    time you and I visit or read one resource but not another.

    History can explain some aspects of internet development. As a small
    collection of sites become dominant in particular fields, by collecting
    and delivering better content to more people, new sites find it
    progressively more difficult to capture attention. This dynamic works
    for websites reaching out for visitors, and discussion groups reaching
    out for subscribers. In each case, seniority counts.

    Seniority counts in several ways too. Promotion is directly related to
    quality, interest, traffic and time. The longer a site is active, the
    better the footpath develops, the more people visit. Secondly, quality
    content is directly related to access to quality content, peer review,
    and time/money. Important existing sites gain in every way.

    This results in a grand system where the first-in, best-dressed, can
    capture the high ground and secure a grand lead in awareness and
    footpath over competitors who follow. Yahoo is a prime example of a
    directory tree, not even the best in most areas, which has achieved
    unparalleled traffic & awareness.

    This competition is equally evident where no money is involved. Perhaps
    your association wishes to create a new referral website, or an open
    mailing list, or an informative guide. All sound concepts, effective
    projects. However, if older, established resources exist, the work will
    be long and arduous.

    Despite the marketing message, the internet is not a world where the
    best information floats to the top. The internet will not let you to
    reach millions. You must compete for the attention, participation,
    devotion and assistance in a manner very similar to building a

    In concrete terms, information clumps on the internet. The best
    resource could appear on any internet system (webpages, email mailing
    lists, ftp-archives, FAQs, online databases, newsgroups...) but we can
    be fairly certain the best information will congregate in just one or
    two. Consider this as an application of the 80:20 rule. 80% of the good
    information will be found on 20% of the formats, arranged concisely by
    20% of the search tools.

    Consider our article "Searching the Web"
    ( We progressively search
    different web tools, looking for the most worthy. Searching the
    internet is the same. You must touch each system to see which system is
    dominant, where the information is congregating for your topic.

    Bringing this together
    In summary, we have broken down and discussed various qualities of
    published information and promoted information. We have made sweeping
    generalizations and educated guesses about information on the internet.
    Now what?

    When a painter begins to paint, they have already visualized some of
    the image. They already have a concept of the finished result. Internet
    research is no different. We start by building a vision of the
    information we seek. Who would publish it? Where would I find it? What
    is its motivation? How would we find it? We now have a practical

    The address is one of the keys. The web address (or URL - Uniform
    Resource Locator) for any item of information gives us a surprising
    amount of information - particularly as we are making generalizations
    about information patterns. We can guess if information resides on a
    personal webpage, a funded university project, or a commercial project.
    The information resides on a .gov website? - the quality is likely to
    be higher and conform to our expectations of government resources.

    We use this new-found experience in three ways. Firstly, we restrict
    our searches to the most likely sources. Secondly, we quickly jump
    through lists of resources (such as those generated by search engines)
    to the sources that match our expectations. Thirdly, our assessment of
    information quality can be guided by our snap-judgements of its origin
    and purpose.

    Internet newcomers often expect to have instant access to the latest
    information at the touch of the button in beautiful colour and peer
    reviewed quality prose. Who is publishing this? Where is this
    information coming from? Who would help us find this? Such a vision is
    fantasy. If we were instead to look for an association website,
    dedicated to a certain type of research, or an informed newsgroup,
    maintained by people passionate about sharing this technology, then we
    have made four steps forward. We are clear about where to look for the
    answers we seek, and we will know quickly if the answers are online.

    Let us now leave this discussion on internet organization and internet
    theory. This is tough newly discovered territory, more than a little
    rough. I fear it will make most sense to people with considerable
    experience with the internet. Let us now explore the fertile grounds of
    understanding more familiar formats like books and news.
                    This document continues as Part 2/6
    Copyright (c) 1998-2001 by David Novak, all rights reserved. This FAQ
    may be posted to any USENET newsgroup, on-line service, website, or BBS
    as long as it is posted unaltered in its entirety including this
    copyright statement. This FAQ may not be included in commercial
    collections or compilations without express permission from the author.
    Please send permission requests to

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