Book Review by Paul M. Malone ([email protected])
"Researching Online for Dummies" by Reva Basch. Foster City, CA: IDG Books Worldwide, 1998. ISBN: 0-7645-0382-0 (pbk)
At their best, the books in the 'Dummies' series are good resources for gaining entry into areas where the reader needs a broad, but not overly technical, introduction. They are written to a fairly rigid formula which includes overviews at the beginning of the book and before every section; repetition of basic facts, and references to other chapters where similar topics are dealt with (because many readers are only going to refer to the book piecemeal rather than reading it front to back); icons in the margins to draw the attention to particularly interesting or important topics; a final section of lists called 'The Part of Tens'; a tear-out 'cheat sheet' inside the front cover; and liberal doses of lame humour.
The author of this entry in the series is Reva Basch, whose qualifications include degrees in English Literature and Library Science, more than twenty years' work in the online research business, and three previous books on this subject. Her experience as an information gatherer and the requirements of the publisher mesh extremely well, and in general the book is meticulous in its presentation of the material, if idiosyncratic in its organization.
Part one, 'Getting Started', introduces some pre-World Wide Web resources (Gopher, WAIS, Archie/FTP, Lynx, etc.) and gives a brief overview of most of the resources covered in the second part, as well as defining some strategies for research. Part two, 'Tools of the Trade', describes many of the available search engines (both general and specialized), subject catalogues, web rings, online reference books, library sites, proprietary information sites, newsgroups, and listservs. Part three, 'Putting It All Together', describes specific situations which might call for the resources described, and introduces more specialized tools for research in the fields of government, medicine, technology, business, and news gathering. Part four, 'The Broader Picture', outlines how one keeps on top of the ever-changing online landscape, and lays out some of the ethical issues: what can be done with information gathered online, and how can its reliability be assessed? The fifth part is the famous 'Part of Tens', here including 'Ten Timeless Truths about Search Engines', 'Ten Clarifying Questions for Better Search Results', and 'Ten Trends to Keep an Eye On'.
There is also a sixth part, not listed in the table of contents, and separately paginated: this is a mini-Yellow Pages internet directory of many of the sites mentioned in the book. These thirty pages are not included in the book's index; to check whether a particular site is included in the directory, you have to flip through it. Since some of the site descriptions in the directory are more detailed than the ones in the book's main text, it's worth reading the directory anyway, but the order of the sections within the directory isn't clear unless you've already accessed the book's CD. Indexing these pages, or providing a separate contents page for them, would have been helpful.
As a long-time research veteran, Basch knows which internet resources are faster or more comprehensive for a particular case, and when it's worth spending money (unless you have free access through a university) on the proprietary databases like LEXIS/NEXIS and Dialog. She also knows when online isn't the right place to research at all: as she points out, 'Just because you can look up information online doesn't mean that you should' (295). She is quick to champion brick-and-mortar libraries as well: 'No virtual library, no matter how rich, is as complete or deep as even the most modest neighborhood library' (104). Perhaps most importantly, she successfully conveys '...that, above all else, research has to be fun' (6). As a result of her expertise and enthusiasm, I even tried out a couple of search engines I already knew about but had never bothered with. Thanks to Ask Jeeves (http://www.askjeeves.com/), for example, I found out in less than ten minutes that the Great Pyramid at Giza weighs about 625 million tons (http://zeus.cs.wayne.edu/~tub/CSC575/hw2/pyramids2.html). On the other hand, even through several mega-search engines, I couldn't find anything about the history of the barometer (except a couple of book titles, maybe a real library is where I should be looking), so the question a colleague asked me about the kind of barometer Goethe might have used goes unanswered for the time being.
One mixed blessing is the book's broad mandate. As Basch herself writes, this book is meant to be a reference book as much as a manual (3), and many, if not most, readers are only going to dip into it. As a result, it's a good introduction to just about any kind of research, but it doesn't go too deeply into any particular application of these strategies. The wide selection also can't appeal to every individual: for me, the business and medical sections were deadly dull. Even in the chapter on business, however, I found some facts that may come in handy: if you want to find an American firm's head office, for example, try looking for a phone number that ends in -00 (210).
Of course, that strategy won't work all around the world and, although it isn't exactly a weakness, some sections of this book are pretty U.S.-centric. Among news sources, Basch does mention both BBC News (http://news.bbc.co.uk/) and CBC News (http://www.newsworld.cbc.ca/), and even points out in the internet directory that they offer an interesting, non-American perspective (D-14). The chapter on government resources, however, is strictly American, and while it's true that the U.S. government has some amazing coverage on the Web, a list of at least the other English-speaking countries' main government URLs could easily have been added in a sidebar. Basch's praises of the Library of Congress's Thomas site (http://thomas.loc.gov/) did move me to prove that I can find the Canadian government's website (http://www.gc.ca/); and in place of the Congressional Record I can read Hansard, the edited transcripts of Canadian parliament meetings (http://www.parl.gc.ca/).
Despite these quibbles, the book is an impressive resource. I wish I were as consistently impressed with the CD that accompanies it. This disk includes utilities for both Windows and Mac computers. Most of the Windows software, however (including Netscape Navigator, MS Internet Explorer, and Nico Mak's WinZip, among others), has by now been superseded by newer versions or by other developments (IE 5.0, for example, now performs many of the functions that askSam's SurfSaver and BlueSquirrel's WebWh acker were designed to add). Instead of the software itself, links to the manufacturer's download sites would have been longer-lived; but the book's appendix, 'About the CD', does give all the manufacturers' URLs (303-312).
The disk also contains three 'bonus chapters' and a 'bonus appendix' on Boolean searches. The information in the appendix is useful, especially for readers who haven't had much practice with search engines, and there are also helpful hints in the three chapters ('Life Choices', 'Recreational Researching', and 'Ten Simple Tune-Ups for Streamlined Searching'); but all four documents are in the Adobe Acrobat .pdf format (the Acrobat Reader is also supplied on the disk). I've never liked Acrobat's clumsy user interface, and I don't think I'm getting a 'bonus' when I have to expend my own paper and toner to print up part of a book that's already paid for (even if I didn't pay for this one). Worst of all, the screen shots in the Acrobat documents are unreadable either on screen or on paper.
The final and best component of the CD is a list of links (virtually the same sites listed in the directory pages), organized according to topic. I didn't check every link on the disk, but in general, it was a pleasant surprise to see how many links were still valid over a year after publication. The links pages open in your browser, and clicking on a link automatically o pens a new browser window; better still, every time you click a new link on the CD it opens in that same other window, so you don't need to continually close windows. This should be standard practice for CDs and for search engine sites.
Ironically, I found proportionately more outdated or dead links in the sections titled 'About the Net/Staying Current' and 'Information Quality', though the new sites were usually fairly easy to track down, either thanks to forwarding addresses left behind or using strategies and/or search engines suggested in the book. Under 'Information Quality', for instance, the promising title 'Evaluating World Wide Web Information' (linked at http://thorplus.lib.purdue.edu/research/classes/gs175/3gs175/evaluation.html) led nowhere until I managed to locate it via AltaVista at http://gemini.lib.purdue.edu/instruction/evaluation.html. This article turned out to be worth searching for. Most of the links on the disk lead to companies or non-commercial entities big enough that the addresses are likely to stay active for some time. The Mining Company, for example, has changed its name to About.com, but the former address (http://www.theminingcompany.com/) still works. Several other links in the category 'Search Engines, Subject Catalogs & Guides', however, seemed for the moment to be gone without a trace, including Reference.Com (http://www.reference.com/), praised by Basch (57-59); and Firefly (http://www.firefly.net/), which seems to go unmentioned in both the book and the internet directory. This last discrepancy is unusual in a book and CD set that generally harmonize their content very well.
Overall, this book is basic yet it never talks down to the reader; it contains a great deal of information without being overwhelming; and it conveys the challenge of researching without being daunting. The CD, on the other hand, is handy particularly because it save typing out the URLs, but less well thought-out, and hardly indispensable.
This book can be purchased at a discount from the Cybersociology Bookstore.