Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Harnessing the Power of Google

By request, 9 research tips vital to finding information in the digital age.

1) Narrow your search terms.

Although Google's algorithms can be very powerful, it still can't read your mind.
  • Want information about a mustang but not the car? use the minus sign (-) ex. mustang -car
  • Searching for a particular phrase? Want Pope's Essay on Man and not every essay ever written on man? Use double quotation marks ("") ex. "Essay on Man"
  • Want to search for websites on "honour" and not "honor"? use the plus sign (+) ex. +honour
2) Expand your search terms.

Sometimes you know there are a lot of ways to describe what you are looking for. If that is the case, here are a couple of ways to expand your search.
  • The wildcard. Want to know how your Senator voted on the latest bill? use an asterisk (*) ex. Schumer voted * (A note: the wildcard only works as a substitute for whole words, not partial ones)
  • Looking for something on e-readers, but you don't want to limit it to one brand? use OR (it must be capitalized to work) ex. e-reader OR Kindle OR Sony OR Nook
  • Want to learn about the newest advancements in pharmaceuticals but don't know all the common synonyms for "research"? use a tilde (~) ex. pharmaceutical ~research
3) Pick a numeric range.

Say you are looking for a new house within a price range or maybe, doing research on Somalia during a specific time period. Any number within that range will appear. Be aware that the search engine will not recognize whether these numbers are prices or years, they will only recognize that the numbers on the page lie between the range you provided. use two periods (..) ex. real estate 100000..200000; ex. Somalia 1955..1962.

4) Choose your file type.

Looking for the power point to a lecture or a pdf of a grant proposal? use filetype: ex. biology lecture filetype:ppt

5) Choose a website.

Know that your information is buried in a big website? Or doing research on universities? use site: ex. hurricane; ex. financial aid site:edu

6) Utilize Google's topic searches.

On the Google homepage, look at the top left corner. Many options are available. News, Shopping, Books, Scholarly works, Blogs. You can choose any one of these and search within these topics.

Alternatively, you can choose the "Advanced Search" option at the right of the Search Box. Filling in the information on this page will utilize the first 5 tips (and more!). Scrolling down the page, you will find links to topical searches.

Even though I have listed this as #6, I actually use this tip more than all the other ones. Narrowing your search to a topic can be very helpful. Because world news has become primarily electronic, I often search under the Google News topic to find the latest information.

7) Understand the limitations of Google's topic searches.

Although these topic searches are incredibly useful, and largely reliable, there are limitations. Particularly with Google Scholar and Google Books. There is an entire part of the internet effectively closed to internet search engines. While you may find peer-reviewed articles by using Google Scholar, you will not find all or even most of the articles on your topic. Most electronic scholarly articles are stored on subscription-based databases. If you are doing in depth research or are particularly concerned with accuracy and bibliographic resources, I would suggest starting with Google Scholar, gathering ideas, and then using the resources at your library. Many libraries subscribe to databases of periodicals and journals that you are not going to find on Google Scholar.

8) Identify quality information.

Just because something is on the internet, does not make it true. Many of the information available is valid, some is unintentionally inaccurate, and some is intentionally, or even maliciously false. When doing any research, make sure the information you are looking at can be substantiated. Look for footnotes (and verify them if you are concerned); use trusted websites and look to them to refer you to new sources; and finally, don't assume that the first answer you find is the best or more accurate one.

9) Know when to move beyond Google.

Google can not find you every answer. Despite the company's ambitious goal to map the entire internet, some of the internet is unmappable. Closed sites, such as subscription databases and company internal web services, will never show up on Google. Many influential scholarly works cannot be accessed. When you hit a dead end, when you doubt accuracy, or when you get a nagging feeling in the back of your skull that there MUST be more out there, head to a library or a museum, IM or text a librarian (yes, those services exist in many areas), or email someone who is a recognized expert in the field. Don't forget that most people comprehend more information through person-to-person communication than through any other method.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

The Bookstore Dilemma

Recently, I went to a fantastic bookstore in the lower east side of Manhattan. (A word of warning, I am apt to think nearly all bookstores are fantastic). I was particularly impressed by their in store cafe. A cafe dedicated to books. The wallpaper was created from old monograph pages, pile of books hang from the ceiling, and even the menu is comprised of food related quotes from novels. Books wear with use; words fade, pages rip, and content comes outdated. However, "book," as object, does not lose its aesthetic and perhaps psychological appeal. An appeal the McNally Jackson Books seems to have capitalized on.

On this horribly rainy Saturday, McNally Jackson was packed. The cafe was standing room only and the bookstore entrance was clogged with drenched umbrellas of every color and size imaginable. The patrons that weaved in and out of the shelves seemed to know the store well. These were no tourists, and McNally Jackson was not a serendipitous shelter from the hurricane force winds. New Yorkers had specifically chosen to brave the elements to visit this bibliographic haven; further evidence of the powerful appeal of the "book."

Why, then, I asked myself, while I reverently thumbed the spine of Pevear and Volokhonsky's Dostoevsky translation, is a bookstore filled on even the worst of days and a library a couple blocks away hosted only a handful of patrons?

Bookstores, as a rule do not benefit from patrons idly flipping through the pages of their new favorite author. In fact, one would assume a business model that does not require a purchase to enjoy the merchandise would be fundamentally flawed.

In contrast, public libraries actually materially benefit from patrons who peruse magazines, thumb through novels, and browse the internet. Each book pulled and re-shelved adds to circulation statistics. Those statistics are the basis of public funding. (So, as a side note, the next time you are in a library and are tempted to re-shelve your own books, because you know the Dewey Decimal System just as well as the next person, resist that temptation. The books left on the re-shelve carts are often scanned before they are re-shelved to collect statistics on which books are used, even if they are not checked out.)

While I do not pretend to fully understand the economic effects of the bookstore business model, I have to ask myself: what is a for-profit bookstore doing that is so much more attractive to patrons than what the local library is doing? What structural, philosophical, aesthetic or environmental changes should be made? In short, what are we missing? Atmosphere? Attitude? Service? Scones? While I would venture to guess that most public libraries lack something in all of these areas, I am curious to know what changes people think are the most crucial.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Thursday, March 25, 2010

You all know you've wanted to try this:

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign's ACES Library

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Is information free?

Information is free.

At least, it should be, according to the majority sentiment in library land. Ever since the advent of early public libraries of the 1800s, public libraries have had a democratizing effect on society. In 1948, the ALA adopted the "Library Bill of Rights," championing open access to information resources and challenging censorship. Throughout the years, freedom of access has come to mean, in many areas, free access.

In this digital age, I think that our field's approach to access should change. Before, if a person had borrowed a book from the library, he would walk away with the book, for a designated period of time. However, he would have no sense of ownership over the book. He would eventually have had to return it to the library. In the mean time, another person who had wanted the book would have had to wait her turn to read the book. This system of lending had historically provided free access to materials and, as there was no sense of ownership, publishers and authors did not feel as though their intellectual property had been stolen or misused in any way. Currently, access continues to be free, in most cases, but the sense of ownership has changed. With digital copies of books and journals, library patrons can now download their desired information resources. Cost of access has not changed. All these resources are still free to the user, but ownership has altered. Protection of intellectual property has diminished.

I am not suggesting that libraries should start charging for all memberships or that school children should no longer be allowed to check out and read copies of Dr. Seuss' The Cat in the Hat. I am suggesting, however, that access to digital information should change. Authors spent hours, perhaps years creating these resources; and, in the case of scholarly works, authors may have spent hundred of thousands of dollars on education to create the journal article that was just emailed into your inbox for the low, low cost of absolutely nothing.

Currently, there are hundreds of commonly used databases providing access to thousands of journals and other digital resources. Libraries often pay for subscriptions to these databases to allow patrons access to the information. However, these subscriptions are incredibly expensive; so, libraries can rarely afford more than a couple subscriptions.

What is the solution? How do you provide freedom of access to all information (not just the subscription your local library can afford) while simultaneously protecting the intellectual property of the people responsible for creation of the information? As unprofessional as this sounds, think of Netflix. They offer different levels of subscriptions for different levels of access. To individuals, not institutions. In addition, we could envision a situation where a person could want access to one and only one item in a database. For a one-time fee, this could be possible.

Information is not free. In fact, it is very expensive. The time, the work, the effort of the authors should be recognized and rewarded. And freedom of access should not always mean free access. Freedom of access should mean ability to access. In this age, where the lines of ownership are blurred with digital downloads, perhaps we should reconsider our system. While the purchase of information is somewhat antithetical to the ideals of library land, small fees to access scholarly work isn't necessarily robbing people of access. In fact, because patrons of any library could access the information in any database, access will be increased.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

A book by any other name

Webster defines the word "book" as 1 a : a set of written sheets of skin or paper or tablets of wood or ivory b : a set of written, printed, or blank sheets bound together into a volume c : a long written or printed literary composition. Library science uses the term "monograph" to distinguish what we commonly refer to as "books" from other printed materials, such as journals and periodicals. In the past three years, the term "book" has expanded to include electronic texts, such as e-books.

All of these definitions and connotations imply that books are works whose texts are in one discernible physical or electronic space. For cataloging purposes, this is a convenient assumption. Imagine the chaos if every page of one book was in a different place in the library? Or worse, if every page were in a different library? What if the book were divided into single words and scattered throughout the world? What about non-textual parts of a book?

While authors have often tested the boundaries of the book medium, the last decade (or two) has brought a new wave of expansion. Author Brandon J. Mendelson wrote a novel using only Twitter posts. The BBC Audiobooks America begin the Twitter novel project, a collaborative novel written by the followers of BBCAA. In Japan, some of the top selling novels were written by text message. And my personal favorite, author Shelley Jackson has written a short story, "Skin." Each word of the story is to be tattooed on a different person around the globe, effectively transforming people into the medium for her book.

Some may argue against defining these works as books, describing "book" as a medium rather than an intellectual endeavor. Nevertheless, that controversy, that debate is what makes this so exciting. However we describe these works, the task of defining them is one of the newer challenges to the field of library science. To put something into a category (as loose as it may be) allows the public to find it, access it, read it. Let the cataloging begin!