Extras - SLA Highlights - Putting the Internet to Work in Your Library

Janet Jacobson is the the head law librarian at the law firm of Maslon Edelman Borman & Brand in Minneapolis, MN.  A graduate of  St. Olaf College in Northfield, MN, she earned her MLS from the University of Minnesota.  She has been a private law firm librarian since long before the advent of the Internet!

Although I've been a long-time Special Libraries Association Legal Division member, I've never had the opportunity to attend the SLA annual meeting.  This year it was held right here in Minneapolis, only blocks from my office. This was my big chance, and I decided to make the most of it.  There was only one problem: how to choose among so many great programs.  Did I want to focus on understanding my evolving role as a "knowledge leader," enhance my professional skills, learn more about knowledge management, or develop leadership skills?  Should I concentrate on programs offered by the Legal Division or branch out and try courses aimed at the general membership?  There were some difficult choices, but by the end of the five day conference, I felt that my SLA experience had been a successful one - often practical, sometimes challenging and thought-provoking, and occasionally even inspirational.

Putting the Internet to Work in Your Library was one of those sessions that was mostly practical, but also challenged some of my assumptions about Internet searching.  It was offered twice during the week - once as an all-day hands-on CE course on Sunday, June 5 and then again on Thursday in a condensed, lecture only version.  The all day session filled up early, but I was quite satisfied with the half-day session.  Both were taught by Rita Vine of IMR Integrated Management Resources Inc. located in Toronto, Ontario. The company designs custom training programs to help people become better and more efficient users of their computers and the Internet.  Rita, a reference librarian by training,  is Vice President of IMR.  She trains researchers across North America and also directs a team of four consultants who provide Internet training.

Rita covered three major areas:

  • using the Internet for library reference
  • staying up-to-date with changes in the fast-paced world of the Internet; and
  • working faster and smarter on the Web

I will summarize major points from each of these areas, with somewhat less emphasis on the third, since I feel that it suffered the most from the lecture only format.

Using the Internet for Library Reference

Rita began her presentation on how to use the Internet for library reference by voicing serious reservations about relying on search engines to locate information on the Internet.  One of the greatest problems is that search engines cannot index much of the Internet.  PDF files, forms-based databases, sites requiring a login, and licensed or fee-based materials are not found by search engines.  This means that only 30 - 40% of the Web is indexed.  Other challenges to successfully searching the Internet include:1) rapid development of new search engines and continuous development of search engine capabilities, 2) the huge amount of information available on the Web; 3) ambiguities and inconsistencies in search engine retrieval.  What is the serious Internet researcher to do?

Rita made three recommendations:

1) Use search engines for  targeted searches

Rita recommended using search engines only for very specific queries, i.e., a unique phrase, the name of an association or corporation, or the name of an individual.  She  recommended  HotBot, AltaVista, and Northern Light as single source search engines that are particularly good at searching for specific terms, combinations of words, and phrases.  (HotBot also got high marks as the easiest search engine for end users to understand.)  When constructing a specific search, Rita suggested using the following tricks:

  • Be specific
  • Use the "+" and "-" symbols
  • Use quotations for phrases
  • Force case sensitivity by capitalizing proper names
  • If your search doesn't work with one search engine, try another
  • Find a search engine you like, and be sure to read the help file

2) Choose your resources carefully, focusing on filtered tools provided by experts

As an alternative to search engines, Rita suggested specialized search engines and databases as well as what she called "guru sites" - selective guides to the best sites available in a particular field, recommended by experts in that field.  Examples of specialized search engines and databases include GOVBOT (for searching the contents of U.S. government Web sites), PUBMED (for searching health-related journals), INFOSPACE (for locating phone numbers, e-mail addresses and street maps), or CARL Uncover (for searching the contents of journals).

Guru sites, or sites that are set up by experts in a particular field, are found through "virtual reference desks" - selective, frequently annotated lists of resources on many topics.  According to Rita, the Librarians' Index to the Internet is the best of the virtual reference desks.  It provides a searchable, annotated subject directory of more than 5000 Internet resources.  Accessing that site, for example, will lead you to quality Internet resources on such diverse topics as movies, U.S. companies, affirmative action, and genealogy.  Some of these sites may be sites that would not be located by traditional search engines.  General catalogs - similar to virtual reference desks but less heavily annotated - can also point you to guru sites.  Yahoo, World Wide Web Virtual Library, and Argus Clearinghouse are all examples of general catalogs.

3) Keep thinking like a librarian

Rita reminded us that when using the Internet, it is important to keep thinking like a librarian.  Move away from search engines toward sources that approximate the sources we used before the Internet.  For example, when looking for quick facts, locate and consult the Web versions of dictionaries, encyclopedias, directories,  and almanacs.  Journal articles can be located on Web-based indexes such as UncoverWeb, or indexes made available through professional and/or academic groups.

Staying Up-to-Date

Staying up-to-date with new Internet resources as well as news about the Internet and other information technologies can be a full-time job.  Rita recommended choosing just a few current awareness resources that fit your needs, and reading them regularly.  She recommended the Scout Report (from the University of Wisconsin as a good way to staying informed on valuable new resources on the Internet.)  Current Cites at as a recommended source for references to selected articles, books, and electronic documents on information technology.  Don't forget print resources, such as Computers in Libraries, Online Magazine, and Internet World.  And finally, Rita pointed out that you can rely on the gurus who produce the "guru sites" mentioned above to keep you up-to-date on the latest and best sites in their particular subject areas.

Working Faster and Smarter on the Web

Rita offered a variety of tips for working more efficiently on the Web.  For example, in the area of bookmark management, she recommended Powermarks, a shareware program that enables users to assign notes, descriptions, and keywords to URLs, thus simplifying the filing and searching of a  large number of URLs.  She also provided a list of browser keystroke shortcuts.  One tip she recommend was to use the <Alt> key with the left arrow for moving back to a previous Web page, or the <Alt> key with the right arrow for moving forward to the next Web page.  With practice this becomes faster than using the Back and Forward buttons. Rather than wait for a page to finish loading, Rita suggested continuing your research by opening a window in your browser.  You can have several windows open, and switch back and forth between them.  She also recommended using the right mouse button to open a link in a new window.  Doing so helps you to avoid losing your spot.  You can return to your original window just by clicking on the taskbar.

And Finally...

There was something for everyone in this program, from the  novice to expert Internet searcher.  While Rita did not discuss any law sites on the Internet,  her recommendations regarding search engines and the importance of locating those "guru sites" challenged me to think about how I could apply the same principles in legal research. Despite being a law firm librarian, I still need to know where to find the other types of information Rita mentioned; medical, statistical, business, personal.  In addition, the handouts Rita provided were particularly valuable.  For example, the handout for the section on using the Internet for reference contained many annotated and well organized lists of Web sites, presenting Rita's favorites in a number of categories such as single source search engines, meta search engines, journal indexes on the Web, fact-finding tools, phone and address locators, virtual reference desks and so forth.  Her list of current awareness sources, both electronic and print, seemed quite exhaustive, and again was annotated with full URLs and Rita's personal recommendations.  The Internet is always a moving target.  Rita's workshop provided suggestions for searching in the current Internet environment, but, just as important, it also provided general tools and important principles that can always be used as guidelines, regardless of the constant changes in the Internet world.