Welcome to the first Thing of Module Two of DH23Things, Finding and Filtering Information online!
Information in hard copy is expensive to print and distribute, and is available only to a limited number of readers at a time. Digital information, on the other hand, can be uploaded to the Web and shared simultaneously with anyone with internet access; moreover, with Web 2.0 anyone can create and share information online. This means of course that there is a vast quantity of information available to the Humanities researcher, either as primary source material, secondary analysis (e-books and online journals and blogs) and, as explored in Module One, information which supports dialogue with other academic colleagues in your field.
This abundance of available information of course results in rather different problem than that which faced researchers in the past, and a number of challenges for the researcher.
- Selecting, storing, cataloguing and retrieving information is now no longer solely the preserve of professionally trained librarians. The researcher needs to take responsibility for learning new search techniques.
- Locating high-quality, relevant information in an over-abundance of online data
- Tools for searching for relevant and high quality information rely on complex algorithms to identify and rank the results. Without understanding how they work, search results may be skewed or limited without the researcher being aware.
- Much of the information on the internet is actually inaccessible to search engines – databases, dynamic web content, scanned material and PDFs, multi-media which is not tagged, information behind password protected privacy settings or paywalls. This is known as the ‘deep’, ‘invisible’ or ‘hidden’ web, and may include a lot of academic content.
There are a few things to try out this week – dip in and see what might work well for you. Some of these tools help you to stay up to date by alerting you to content which may be of interest to you; others help you to search in different ways. Automating ways of delivering information to you rather than going out to find it may be one way of dealing with the information overload of the Web.
RSS (or Really Simple Syndication), is a personalised aggregation tool. You can bring together the sort of content you’re interested in by using RSS feeds – subscriptions to online information sources – to create a customised collection of up to date information you’re likely to be interested in. When a site you’ve subscribed to is updated, the RSS feed will deliver the new content, with a link to its source, to your feed reader. You might be interested in updates to blogs like this one, or news websites, but as a researcher, one of the most useful applications might be to subscribe to the Table of Contents of a journal in your field so you can see what articles have been published in each issue.
To use RSS feeds, you will need to set up an account with a feed reader which will check RSS feeds you’ve subscribed to and deliver the content to you. The most commonly used ones are Google Reader and Netvibes, which are web based and can be accessed from any computer (there are also desktop versions which can only be accessed from the computer you download them onto).
To set up an account, you’ll need to go to Google Reader (or Netvibes) and sign up, either with your existing Google account if you have one, or an email address and password if not. Once you’ve set up your account, you can add your first subscription. You can do this in one of two ways. The first way is to click on the ‘subscribe’ button in the left hand menu and enter (or cut and paste) the URL from a website you want to subscribe to. The second is to subscribe directly from websites. Look for the RSS symbol and click on it.
You will be taken to the site’s feed, and can either subscribe from there or cut and paste the URL into the ‘subscribe’ box on your RSS feed reader as in the first option. Once you’ve subscribed to a few feeds, you can check your account much in the same way as you would your email inbox, for new content. You’ll find more instructions in the Google Reader videos, including the one below, for getting started.
Another way to stay up to date with new content is via email alerts. Google has a service called Google Alerts which allows you to perform a search and then receive an email at a frequency of your choosing which delivers the most recent results for your search. You can set up to 1000 alerts to your email account, and if you have a Google Reader account, you can also have the results delivered to your feed reader. You can then manage the alerts (to cancel them or alter the frequency). There are more detailed instructions here to follow to set up your first Google alert.
Other services use email alerts; this blog has an option to subscribe for email updates, for example.
Alternative search engines
Google is the first point of call for most of us searching the web; Google Scholar helps to narrow down search results to those of academic quality. However, Google’s increasingly personalised results ranking may not give you a transparent set of results, and you may wish to compare with other search engines. You could try a more specialised PDF search engine, or a search engine dedicated to social media (SocialMention) or blogs (Technorati), or one which is better able to search the deep web such as CompletePlanet.
RSS feeds: Set up your account with Google Reader. Subscribe to this blog, if you like, using the RSS option in the right hand menu. Find a journal in your field and see if it has an RSS feed to its table of contents to subscribe to, or a news site such as jobs.ac.uk or Guardian Higher Education. You could search the Cambridge University Library catalogue using LibrarySearch and use its RSS facility to keep you in touch with new results for that search. Bibliographic databases often allow you to subscribe to a feed on a particular topic – look for buttons labelled ‘share’, subscribe’ or ‘alert’.
You can also embed a RSS feed reader on your own blog, to display updated content from this blog and others, if you look at the ‘widgets’ option in your Appearance settings (if using WordPress; other blog platforms will have similar options).
Email alerts: Next time you perform a search on Google or LibrarySearch for academic purposes, set up an alert for your search to keep you informed of any future results.
Alternative search engines: next time you perform a search on Google, compare with another search engine to see how the rankings differ, and if anything is indexed which Google cannot discover on the deep web.
Whatever degree of automation is possible, any search will rely on the effectiveness of your own search strategies – your choice of keywords and appropriate search portal, your ability to frame the search using the appropriate conventions (e.g. Boolean logic) and to interpret the results. How fresh are your basic search skills?
What are the most appropriate portals for locating the type of information you use in your research? What uses might be made of the open web, rather than the ‘cloistered garden’ of the academic databases?
If creating digital artefacts (online editions and databases) becomes a more common mode of presenting research material, how might your search strategies need to change to accommodate this, particularly if these resources are part of the ‘deep web’?
How transparent are the ways of locating information in Thing Eight? How well do they locate and present information that’s relevant to you, and how easy are they to operate? Are they a good alternative or supplement to more traditional ways of finding and filtering information, given the amount of information that’s available now?
How easy will it be to stay on top of the information that’s delivered to you? How will you make sure that you are not swamped in the information that might be delivered to your RSS feed reader or email account?