Features - Be a Web-Savvy Researcher

Genie Tyburski is the Web Research Applications Specialist at Ballard Spahr Andrews & Ingersoll, LLP and Web Manager of The Virtual Chase, a service of the law firm. She writes and speaks frequently on electronic research strategies. Ms. Tyburski was featured recently in the book, Law of the Super Searchers: The Online Secrets of Top Legal Researchers. She received her M.S. in Information Studies from Drexel University, and is a member of the American Association of Law Libraries and Special Libraries Association.

Books not on the Web may as well be invisible.

In its opening paragraphs, a New York Times article about digital text projects delivers this bombshell, and then proceeds with a discussion of efforts to place books online as if nothing were amiss.1  Students hate libraries, the article explains quoting one Harvard youth, “It’s such a big facility that you have to search through.’” Even librarians, it continues, acknowledge that few today use books for research.

While the article carefully refers to the sole use of the Web for research “as a substitute for in-depth investigation,” it never deals with the increasingly pervasive idea that the Internet represents an alternative, or worse, total information solution. It’s easier, faster, and cheaper to go online to conduct your research. And if you cannot find what you seek, it does not exist. Such is the hype that surrounds the Internet.

Certainly, many valuable resources for research exist on the Web. Government agencies, for example, increasingly publish documents and other information on Web sites or in Web-enabled databases. In addition, most traditional online databases now reside on the Web. News media delivers the news continuously 24 hours a day. Investors receive real-time stock quotes. Consumers find opinion about products and services.

Because of the abundance of useful information, lawyers should perceive the Web as a worthwhile research environment. Indeed, one lawyer writes about using free or low-cost Web-based resources for a recent legal research project to the exclusion of more traditional expensive information sources.2 Yet in a later email communication, she acknowledges that "the Internet should be used in conjunction with LEXIS and WESTLAW."3

Like any publication medium, the Web has limitations. Not all content of potential interest to lawyers, for instance, exists on the Web, or even in digital form. Learning to recognize the myths and exaggeration surrounding the Web will go a long way toward reducing your frustration online.

The best defense against succumbing to Internet hype begins with a basic understanding of the technology. First, the Web is not the Internet; these terms are not interchangeable. The Internet is a massive network of computer networks that supports such protocols, or systems, as the World Wide Web. In an analogy that I hope does not cause tech-savvy readers to shudder, the Web is to the Internet what software is to computer hardware. Consider this: The Internet can (and at one time, did) exist without the Web, but the converse is not true.

Moreover, the Web is not a database. Databases present an orderly means for storing, defining, and drawing relationships between, data. Traditional online systems like Westlaw typically comprise one or more databases. Consider this: You may reasonably expect to find information if told “it’s on Westlaw,” but the same advice about the Web is not nearly as helpful.

Often, successful research techniques on the Web resemble methods employed prior to the advent of online systems. In days of old, skillful researchers began their task by identifying potential sources. Those with knowledge of a topic might begin with a known work, and then investigate its references to expand the research. Others might browse relevant sections of a library for newer or similar material. Those new to a subject, on the other hand, might ask a librarian or consult a finding tool like a library card catalog, periodical index, or case digest.

Whereas researchers in a brick-and-mortar library might, out of necessity, confine their research to the resources available within, and to, the library, researchers on the Web encounter boundaries of a different sort. Information may, for example, reside within a secure site that offers access via paid subscriptions (Westlaw). Or, a site may require registration, which forces you to reveal personal information (ChemWeb), or demand membership (ABA). Access to information, too, may necessitate knowledge of a foreign language. Further, the information may simply be unavailable in Web-enabled form.

After identifying potential sources by title (Purdon’s Pennsylvania Statutes) or by type (Pennsylvania statutory law), consider whether they are likely to exist on the Web. Ask, for example: Is the information current (law presently in effect) or archival (superceded law)? If archival, does it have historical significance (old Pennsylvania real estate law versus the Gettysburg Address)? Is the information a popular or general fact (statistic, stock quote, definition)? Is it newsworthy? Is a factual but narrow answer satisfactory (The company filed for bankruptcy.); or do you require more (Did it hide any assets?). Is the information public (Microsoft’s 10-K) or private (Who are the equity partners in XYZ private investment fund?)?

Consider this example: Your church client asks if it has to comply with the federal lead-paint disclosure requirements. It plans to offer its new pastor rent-free housing in lieu of compensation. What are the potential sources of information? Assume no existing statute, regulation, or case answers the question.

Since this question concerns compliance, you probably will check the appropriate federal agency’s interpretative documents. Specifically, you will investigate guidance documents issued by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Are these documents online? If so, where?

To research Web-enabled guidance documents issued by HUD, you could connect directly to the agency’s site. Then drill down until you find the Office of Lead Hazard Control’s Reference Library, where they reside. Or, you could connect to one of the major search engines, and using general terms to compose your query, limit it to the hud.gov domain.

For example, connect to the relatively new Raging Search, a search only interface to AltaVista. Keep the query simple. Remember, at this point, you seek a source rather than an answer. Enter

lead AND disclosure

in the search box and select “Boolean terms” from the pull-down menu (Boolean means you elect to relate search terms with the connector, “AND,” which must appear in capital letters.). Further limit the search to HUD’s Web site by entering “hud.gov” without quotations in the “URL” field. To display these advanced search features and field qualifiers, follow the “customize” link.

The search should yield links to both the Office of Lead Hazard Control’s home page and its Reference Library. Both pages reference guidance documents. Finding one that answers this specific question requires opening and scanning all that concern “lead disclosure upon the transfer of residential property.” Unfortunately, the search function that appears at the top of the Office’s home page queries all HUD Web pages and documents rather than just those pertaining to this Office. The guidance document dated December 5, 1996 provides the answer.4

But what if you know of a potential source (HUD guidance documents), but not where to find it? The Web, just like brick-and-mortar libraries, provides numerous finding aids. Sites like Yahoo or FindLaw serve a function similar to a library’s card catalog; that is, they categorize and reference Web sites by subject. Tools like The Virtual Chase or MEDLINEplus act as subject-specific research guides. Some sites like TRIP Database even index or digest subject-specific periodical literature.

Search engines, too, help researchers locate sources of information. To use them to find a potential source or starting point – as opposed to Web pages that may, or may not, advance your research -- compose the query so that it contains words that describe a possible resource. For example, to find articles on developments in the treatment of systemic lupus erythematosus, enter one of the queries below rather than the name of the disease.

medical literature database


medical journal database


research medical articles

These queries yield links to superior medical research sources like MEDLINE, Healthfinder, and the National Library of Medicine. Now access these to search for articles and other information sources on developments in the treatment of this disease.

Conducting Web-based research successfully depends in large part on your approach. Those who grasp the basics of the technology will advance in their research efforts. Understand, for example, that the Web is not the Internet; it’s a hypermedia system delivered -- perhaps empowered -- by the Internet. Neither is the Web a database. Recognizing this will keep you from attempting to search it as such.

Those, too, who are familiar with traditional research methods will adapt more readily to performing research on the Web. Remember to focus first on finding a potential source of information, and second on locating an answer. If you know of a potential source, use it to launch your research. When investigating an unfamiliar topic, on the other hand, use the Web’s finding aids. If you select a search engine, remember to enter keywords that describe the potential resource rather than your research topic.

Conduct Web-based research wisely to benefit from the rich, immediate, and frequently low-cost content. Recognize the reality of the Web as a publication medium. It's often, but not always, inexpensive. It's fast and easy to use when you know what you're doing. A learning curve -- steep for those already uncomfortable with research in any environment -- exists. Accepting this fact, and then learning and applying basic research strategies, will pave the way for a future research success story authored by you.


1The Library as the Latest Web Venture,” New York Times, June 15, 2000, last reviewed on September 19, 2000.  <back to text>

2 Carolyn Elefant, "Legal Research: Saved by the Web," Law.com/DC, September 25, 2000, last reviewed on September 28, 2000.  <back to text>

3 TVC Alert, 29 September 2000, last reviewed on September 29, 2000.  <back to text>

4 HUD Interpretative Guidance, Part II, December, 5, 1996.  <back to text>