Searching is Simple

Searching is Simple.

Section 1

Searching is simple. It starts with a question. It ends with an answer. Everything between is searching. Much of it has to do with the tools you use. Select the right tool and you can get to the answer almost by default. Luckily, for any given topic there tends to be just a handful of must-use tools. For more complicated questions, there are usually plenty of people to ask for assistance.

The answers you are seeking will be found in a selection of different formats. In this I mean books, articles, interviews, and more. This is a very convenient concept and forms the foundation to all our work both here and in the Spire Project. Few research tools cover more than a single format; those that do, tend to cover each format poorly. Start a search by selecting the specific format you are seeking. Then, select your preferred search tool from a small collection specific to that format. To get the information, simply follow through and read, search or interview. Everything follows naturally.

Have a Question.
Select a Format.
Select a Search Tool.
There are just a few formats to consider.

Books
. . . . . Dense, factual, comprehensive and a minimum of 6 months to a year old.
Articles
. . . . . Shorter than books but focused on one topic.
News
. . . . . Short and shallow. Immediate.
Statistics
. . . . . Factual. More reliable.
Theses
. . . . . Very thick. Deeply researched. Esoteric.
Webpages
. . . . . Immediate, mixed quality, with limited factual support.
Interviews
. . . . . Immediate, varied quality, partly digested.

Each format has a selection of simple tools to find information. Many of these tools will be on the internet – which may mean easily accessible. A word of caution: try not to confuse search tools that happen to be on the internet with searching internet information. The Amazon.com book catalogue is a search tool useful in locating books. Though on the web, searching Amazon is part of a book search, not a web search. A search of the Reuters newswire is a news search, not a web search, even though Reuters releases current news on the web. Each format should remain distinct in your mind.

Tools to Find Books

  1. Some books, particularly classics, are free on the internet through efforts like Project Gutenberg.
  2. Libraries allow you to read books. Library catalogues are frequently online.
  3. The largest libraries, like the Library of Congress and the British Library, list millions of books in their online catalogues.
  4. Most currently available ‘in print’ books are listed in national Books-in-Print databases.
  5. Each country maintains a special government publication database.
  6. Lastly, online bookstore catalogues like that of Barnes & Noble, list a sizeable portion of current in-print books.

Tools to Find Webpages

  1. Global search engines index hundreds of millions of webpages for free text searching. Consider Altavista and All-the-Web.
  2. Global directories list resources by category. Consider Yahoo or the Open Directory Project.
  3. Regional search engines and directories focus more tightly on regionally important topics.
  4. Lastly, more specialized search tools, from search engines which focus on specific topics (like maths or government webpages), services which link you to important topic-specific websites, and services which manually review websites, all can take you further.

Tools to Find News

  1. Current news is found in newspapers and the evening news. News clips can be delivered electronically, or purchased through specialist news clipping services.
  2. Newswires redistribute regional news to a larger audience. Many newswires release their text news free online.
  3. Specialized search engines like NewsBlip and TotalNews aggregate current online news.
  4. State libraries archive past copies of regional papers.
  5. Individual newspapers maintain libraries of previous articles. Many are available as commercial databases.
  6. Larger commercial databases unite the news from many prominent newspapers. These databases of news articles stretch back many years.

This story is repeated with all the formats information comes in.

To drum this in with repetition, searching starts with a question. Select the format (book, news or webpage). Next, select one or more tools from our short list of search tools for that format. Want to understand the lifecycle of the spider? A book should prove useful. Let’s look at either our local library book catalogue or a big commercial bookstore catalogue like Barnes & Noble (bn.com).

Search. Read. Voila, the lifecycle of the spider.

If searching appears a little boring at this point, you have not visited a library recently. The excitement comes in finding the information. The rest is dull indeed.

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The information revolution washes over us, picks us up and pushes us forward like so much driftwood. From now on our lives will forever be awash with information. We will eat it. Breathe it. Live in it. Drown in it. Some of us will even learn to liveĀ for it. Those most capable will have the skills to search, sift and sort information.
The information revolution is not about primary research, lab coats and discovery. It is about a surplus of information. The searching we have just discussed is not a particularly creative process. Simple searching is not sufficient to deal with the great tide of information moving against us. But then, simple searching lacks finesse. Simple searching is, well, simple.

Searching is one of those most delightful tasks where skill is everything. A search without talent will give you just a taste. Like pottery perhaps. Anyone can get something but only an expert can accomplish wonders. Quality information, reliable answers, effective coverage of resources; it takes skill to get to this level.

Advances in technology and the delivery of search assistance has made searching easier than ever before. Many search tasks can be accomplished without any experience. With more challenging questions a novice will get results – results they will be proud of. But not results they should be proud of. With experience, you will recognize how much more is possible.

Let’s proceed by adding a little more complexity.

PRELUDE

PRELUDE

Many of us unwittingly digest great amounts of information in the course of a day. Our information needs are more modest and usually repetitive. When we have questions, we reach for a small collection of preferred information sources close at hand with a collection of assessments as to what is credible and trusted.

As a child, these sources include the school library, an encyclopedia and parents. All the sources are trusted.

As an adult, these sources include the state library, the newspaper, bookstores and current magazines. Adults understand truth has become a little more relative, but when the evening news declares presidential hopeful George W Bush is ahead by 3% (on a sample of 707) we slip into thinking he is leading.

There is more to information literacy. It is, after all, a profession. There are tools you know nothing about and techniques you have never heard of. There is a specialized vocabulary just made to confuse you. Research, or rather information research (to distinguish it from lab-coat style research) is so very much more involved.

Yet there is great simplicity to research too. Just under the murky mist of confusing resources rests a solid platform to stand on. In any one field there are just a handful of databases, directories and periodicals to consider. After decades of library and information industry evolution, clearly valuable sources have already floated to the top, monopolizing their respective fields. Most cities have just one or two primary newspapers. Large industries like book publishing have few book databases and a handful of primary book distributors.

Enters the internet: not so much a change of information as a revolution in access to information. Previously you could justify having just a handful of preferred information sources because these were the sources easily available. Today, and the future, is filled with information close at hand. We are dropped into a morass of competing information just waiting to capture our attention, and strain both our capacity to absorb information and our capacity to understand the differences between sources.

A great segment of our community will fall back to tried and true information sources they grew up with: state library, bookstore, local newspaper. The better alternative sources will be ignored for no particular reason. The rush of the information revolution will push past them. They will only hear of changes when their information needs suddenly change – and they are confronted with a vast collection of unfamiliar options, and struggle with understanding what sources they need.

A smaller segment of our community, by virtue of frequently tackling questions best answered with unfamiliar sources, will be driven to understand the information world: to become truly information literate.

There is another story here too. The way our society handles information is undergoing some very fascinating changes. Any predictions for the future should acknowledge the tension and flow of information in our society. Take, for example, the vast surplus of information emerging on the internet, and the convulsions of the commercial information industry in response. Rather than focusing on how information is organized, we can also focus on how information becomes organized. The who, where and why of information, the sociological perspective, adds meaning to the phrase “information revolution”.

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It was another warm day. The young Egyptian boy strode purposely out the gate towards the river. The Nile was low this time of year. Very abundant with fish and bird life. With luck, Shakh would return at sunset with food for the pantry. Mother would be pleased with that.

Shakh knew fishing had changed little over the last hundred years. The walls of his family’s ancestral home had just such a scene of his grandfather fishing on the Nile from a small reed boat. The thinly carved relief was complete with spear, fish, ducks and Shakh’s grandmother nearby holding lotus flowers.

Shakh stopped by old-man Jacob on his short walk to the bank of the Nile. He liked the old trader. Years ago Jacob had traveled to the Levant and brought back many strange artifacts. Some even came as far a field as the Harrapan people who were said to live beyond Sheba, across the waves, some three years journey away. He especially liked the small black head carved in a style so unlike anything else Shakh had seen.

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The Harrapan people lived on the banks of the great Indus river in modern-day Pakistan. A great civilization almost on par with the Sumerians and the more distant Egyptians, very little remains today. They built vast cities of clay brick with rectangular city blocks. They built drains, public toilets and state granaries. They were the first to populate the Indus river valley. (seeĀ www.harappa.com/indus2/index.html)

Little remains. The Harrapan civilization fell with the arrival of the Aryan race and the intervening millennia treated their past poorly. The arrival of Islam erased much of their history as did the shifting Indus river itself. The British used the bricks from one ancient city in the construction of a great railway. Only today are the archaeological digs once again unearthing the past.

I search for Harrapa on the internet. Nothing special, just type ‘Harrapa’ into any of the popular search engines and I uncover harrapa.com, a website devoted to some recent information from these digs. Looks good. Pictures of ancient pots. Children’s toys. A map to an ancient city.

Of course, Shakh would have known of the Harrapan civilization. While it is uncertain ancient Egyptian ever visited in person, goods and rumors traveled far from trader to trader. Ancient Egyptians, while not accomplished conquerors abroad, did travel and mix with distant peoples.

Shakh lived in a civilization centuries distant from us, yet both you and Shakh know a similar amount about the Harrapan civilization. The intervening years have not made everything clear. Even the information revolution has not changed the facts. Both you and Shakh have just a single source of information about the Harrapan civilization. You have the pictures on harrapa.com and our short excerpt here. Shakh has the old-man’s art object to look at, the old-man’s myth of a civilization beyond the waves.

This story carves the act of searching in deep relief. Searching is a skill, a trade and to some a profession. It is also just a simple task of finding information – something we do every day, in so many ways, without any of the difficulties we will get into later in this FAQ.

The difficulties only emerge when you want to do something spectacular. Should you wish to know something specific about the Harrapan civilization, or understand something contentious – then we require a greater degree of expertise and experience. The search becomes a challenging adventure in its own right.

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The Nile was always a slow river but three months out of the year it burst its banks and flooded the fields, bringing life on the banks of the Nile to a complete halt. For these three months Shakh’s family would move into the ancestral home in the streets surrounding the great pyramids. It was an old home, centuries old. Well suited to their needs with a storeroom for food, separate rooms for the parents, and an active social life in close proximity to others. In many ways, this was the most exciting time for young Shakh. For the rest of the year he lived in relative isolation in the village by the Nile. For these three months, he lived in a city, bustling with activity, construction and recreation.

Shakh had expected this year to be like the last but his father secured Shakh an important position – he would be in training to become a scribe. Father had grand plans for young Shakh, plans that extended far beyond life as a scribe. What’s more, with luck and further prosperity, Shakh’s father had the means to secure his further advance.

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Much of ancient Egypt is available for us to read off the walls of the many remaining buildings. They were not a literate nation, yet were able to adorn almost everything with writing and pictures. They lived in the most enlightened society of the day. Years later, Egypt would gift the fledgling Hellenic state a full third of their Greek vocabulary.

This is part of the reason for such an interest in travelling to Egypt. It is the visual symbols that inform us and draw us in so deeply. Standing before the great religious statues, we begin to feel how it was to live and work in that day. To run amok as a young student, waiting for the Nile to subside once again.

Yet, there is much more to knowing ancient Egypt than just the monuments and wall reliefs. Years of study has recovered their lost language of hieroglyphs. Years of archaeology has unearthed their daily lives.

History and Archaeology are fine examples of searching in practice. Both fields struggle openly with the bias and uncertainty each new fact brings forth. Malta is a small island off the coast of Sicily, close to Tunisia. Should evidence emerge of ancient Egyptians living on Malta, what does it mean? Was Malta an Egyptian conquest or an occasional station for their fishing fleet?

This uncertainty applies to all information, in all situations. One of the first events for the new regime in Pakistan was to acknowledge that important national statistics, like the national GDP figures, had been fudged to a serious and significant degree. Important national statistics are not intrinsically true because of their source. This is not a problem solely of underdeveloped nations. Rumor suggests that during the height of Singapore’s land value bubble their national figures were unreliable too.

Searching is a skill and an attitude. In this FAQ we progressively unfold the way information is found. Initially, let’s cover a simple way to find information; a structured approach to an everyday problem. Afterwards, we shall look more closely, and with more complexity, at the world of information.