Review: Online Searching (Library Association)

Pete Cliff reviews the Library Association's guide: Online Searching.

To match the growing trend towards electronic resources and rapid resource discovery, librarians, perhaps the most traditional of resource discovery methods, need to embrace the world of online searching. A correctly executed search or series of searches can yield a number of useful results. But what is the correct way to perform an online search? It is this question that Forrester and Rowlands hope to answer in The Online Searcher's Companion.

Aimed at 'The novice online searcher' this book in intended to be a 'simple guide to searching appropriate online sources in the most efficient way'. As a relative newcomer to the world of online libraries this suited my background. The book is divided into six short chapters of guidance, (The pre-search process, Basic search techniques, Advanced search techniques, Full-text searching, Basic Internet searching, and Quantity vs. quality), and a chapter of worked examples.

Chapter One, 'The pre-search process' is a timely reminder that it is useful (if not essential) to clarify the concepts of a search prior to booting the search engine. The chapter includes suggestions on how to obtain the necessary information from the inquirer maximising the relevance of results, and avoiding unnecessary surprises relating to the cost and time scale. There are also brief notes on the use of dictionaries and thesauri.

Chapters Two and Three then delve into the world of online searching with a few of the basic concepts - Boolean operators, truncation, the 'adjacency operator', descriptors, qualifiers, and a few others. These are, however, only brief introductions of ideas, and because the book does not remain faithful to any one online database, implementation specific detail is avoided. This saves the book from repeating what can be readily gained from online database manuals but sometimes misses useful detail. It is a shame also that the authors do not elaborate further on their description of Boolean logic, an essential tool in online searching. While all the required information is there, one cannot help but want more detail on this potentially tricky subject.

Chapter Four is dedicated to searching full-text fields, suggesting a few inherent pitfalls and ways to avoid them. There is a greater exploration of the concepts explored in the previous chapters in this more specific context. Again implementation detail is avoided.

Chapter five diverts away from the terminal based search engines to provide an overview of newer Internet based or interfaced services. It begins by exploring the efforts of traditional online service providers, many of whom are producing Web interfaces to their databases. There is then a synopsis of the basics of Web search engines - directory and keyword based, and "meta-searches" - and comments on how to use them to find reasonable resources. Finally there is an introduction to "subject portals", (or gateways, internet resource guides, or what you will), an excellent promotion for these developing services.

The penultimate chapter, "Quality vs. quantity", spells out, as is apparent from the chapter heading, methods of expanding or narrowing searches. If every result from a search is relevant to the inquirer then all of these results are of good quality. However, often it is undesirable to be so precise and certain results, that appear to lack relevance, may yield gems of insight. This chapter is short, with the advice of the second half being the exact opposite of that first, and one cannot help wondering if it is perhaps too simplistic. However it does suggest things that might not be immediately obvious.

The book concludes with a series of worked examples looking at a diverse and realistic set of queries. At this point in the book, like many computer based problems, it is to give it a go and these examples provide a decent start. It can be comforting to the novice to follow a worked example and note that the results on the page match those on the screen. It confirms that they must be doing something right and provides the confidence to try different searches.

The main text is also supported by a four appendices. First is a potted history of the 'computing, online searching and the Internet' that, while interesting, perhaps adds little to the books main remit. Secondly, is a summary of modem technology. The information presented here is dated, brief and probably a bit baffling to novices who really should not need to worry about the parity of their connections. Again, it seems surplus to the requirements of the book. Appendices three and four are more useful, pulling together, in the former, a set of further reading, and in the latter a survey of existing online databases. This final reference appendix is invaluable to someone faced with the Web's myriad online searching options.

Much of the advice contained in The Online Searcher's Companion should be common sense, but it often the case that common sense is the hardest to learn, and so this book is welcome. However, it is lacking in depth and the reader may find they need to refer to other books sooner than they would like. It is this lack of depth that is this books one major failing, making it very much a "read-once" publication. The price tag seems, given this, excessive. That said however, the blurb makes it clear that this book could be used as a course text and with a tutor filling in the gaps the book would be a handy guide afterwards, especially if the wide margins were filled with notes.

Author Details

  Peter Cliff
Resource Discovery Network Systems Developer
University of Bath

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Date published: 
Thursday, 23 March 2000
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