Searching for History
on the World Wide Web
"Every search engine will give you good search results some of the time. Every search engine will give
you surprisingly bad search results some of the time. No search engine will give you good results all
of the time." 1 Don't get frustrated if your search isn't yielding the results you'd like to see. Try another angle. The purpose of this page is to pass on the knowledge we've gained about searching specifically for historical information. Anyone who's "surfed" a bit can tell you than often your search yields very little actually related to the topic which you intended to pursue. The reason many of us stay up until three o'clock in the morning is that even the "misses" in a search can yield incredibly interesting sites. You get involved clicking into a beautifully designed site, oohing and aahing at stunning graphics, reading fascinating accounts of people who have nothing to do with your paper topic, and soon it's time to get up for school! Well, your time is precious. You need to decide how much time you are willing to spend searching, then proceed to more structured finding aids. If you're dead set on keyword searching, remember these tips:
KEY WORD SEARCHING
- Did you know that Altavista, Lycos, Excite, Webcrawler, Infoseek and Yahoo can be accessed simply by typing the name into the location bar of your browser? Handy! For more information on these vehicles, go to Tips on Using Popular Search Engines.
- Search at least two different engines, as each engine will yield different results. I usually search three different engines (AltaVista, Excite, and WebCrawler) but I only review the top 10-20% of the matches.
- Try rephrasing your query. Some engines use "fuzzy" logic, wherein they will search for related terms or sites -- however, sometimes you'll get back the big 'Zero Matches Found'. "Since there is very little standardization in Internet indexing, it is also useful to try synonyms for your search terms."2.
- You can also try broadening your query. Instead of searching for the Santa Maria, search for Columbus, or even Age of Discovery.
- Understand the advanced features of a search program (Choose the one or two engines that you like best, then click on the "Advanced Search" information buttons. Each site has explanations which will help you get the most power out of their program. Remember to check out these instruction pages often as the programs are constantly adding new features which will help you in your quest.)
- Have you seen the term "boolean logic" and wondered what it meant to people who didn't work for NASA? Click here to find out what it is and how to use it to make your searches more effective.
- When your search returns results, check out the URL 3 for .edu (education) or .org (non-profit organizations) .gov (government sites) or .com (commercial sites). This glance can tell you a lot about a site before you even click into it. Universities often have superb resources, as do governments, so if you have a limited time factor, choose to explore those sites first.
- If you get a hit that is related to your topic, even if you feel the data or presentation isn't exactly what you wanted, take a second to check out the webpage LINKLIST. If the person has taken the time to put together a site dedicated to the history of chocolate making, chances are he or she has surfed a lot on that topic and may even have the BEST of all finds, an annotated list of favorite sites. Check them out!
- ALWAYS, ALWAYS, ALWAYS, bookmark the sites you like. Netscape Communicator even offers a filing system for your bookmarks, fast and easy, this will save "I know I saw it once" searching. It will also save you grief if you forget to record a citation for a quote or information you found online.
- Know when to give up. Set a time limit for the keyword searching (which can be the equivalent of playing Where's Waldo in a book the size of a football field). Move on to Index Lists or Directory Services and look for more topic related sites.
Some of the vehicles we call search "engines" are actually directory services, collections of related links categorized by subject. These services can give you access to some super resources. The service starts out with general categories, and as you click and choose your areas of interest, the list becomes more and more specialized.
There are lots of other directory lists out there, almost every major search engine features one. Now that you've explored a couple, you've got the hang of it. It's a matter of figuring out where the company puts "history" as a category. Always check Education, Humanities, and Social Science categories if there is not a specific History category listed. Don't neglect cross-category lists which might apply to your topic. If you are studying the effect of the Cuban missile crisis on Russian diplomacy, you'll want to check lists devoted to Politics, Government, and even Geography as well as History.
- Yahoo, though it started as a directory of commercial sites online, now offers some terrific educational and historical resources. Click Social Sciences and scroll down for Aboriginal Studies, British Studies, and lots of other relevant categories. Click Humanities, then History for over 4000 links. Click Indices for specific index lists.
- Excite, calls its directory links channels. History takes a little digging, but if you click Education, then Fields of Study, then History, you'll be rewarded with lots of good links organized topically and by era. Another great channel at Excite is the News channel. Go back to the Excite home page, click NEWS, then scroll down to where it says WEBSITES. From this menu you can choose World Newspapers, U.S. Newspapers, Magazines, etc., etc. Good resource.
- Lycos, offers some good historical resources also. Click EDUCATION, then scroll down to the Top 5% sites. Choose Educational Reference for some good general guides and resources. In the same category (Top 5% sites) choose Arts and Humanities, then History for references with annotations and an editors review.
- Infoseek. Click EDUCATION, then HISTORY for a collection of resources categorized by era and/or topic. Their lists are annotated, and they provide a search box as well.
Index lists are never comprehensive (after all, things are added to the web daily, and no librarian can keep up with all new developments). However, there are topic specific lists for many historical periods which can save you hours of searching. The advantage of an Index List over a Directory Service is that you don't have to click up and down and in and out of hierarchical pages to get to your information. You get simply a straightforward list of information dedicated to a more or less specific topic. Click to visit an annotated collection of our favorite Index Lists (We confess, some of them are not truly indexed, but they are all great collections of history links on all sorts of topics.) At the very bottom of the list, you'll find a link to return you to this page. Tips for using this type of list:
- Don't expect every link to yield gold. Some of them will not be worth your time. Scan down the list, click into those which look good, and bookmark them. Ignore the others. Beware of flashy commercial sites which seem like they are going to have great data and turn out to be an advertisement for how you can get that data for $49.95. (I hate those.)
- Use your bookmark feature wisely. I have several broad category folders (Historical Primary Sources, Historical General Information, Historical Educational products for sale, Historical Images, Audio/Video)
I annotate everything eventually in a huge link list, but as I'm surfing these broad category folders help me remember which sources I've visited, what kind of information they offered, and how I can use them for my papers. When you've identified the three or four major holdings you'll use in your paper, you can begin in-depth research of the sources.
- Remember the links within the link system. A site may not have just what you need, but if it covers the period or topic you're interested in it probably has a link collection which will help you in your search. Stick it in a Link Collection folder and go back to it if you run out of resources.
This page will not discuss the technical differences in search engines -- those of you interested in this type of discussion can visit Spiders and Worms and Crawlers, Oh My! for a very good, well written and easy to understand explanation of the major engines. For the more technically minded, check out the statistical study at Precision among World Wide Web Search Services (Search Engines): Alta Vista, Excite, Hotbot, Infoseek, Lycos.
1 Just the Answers, Please, by Susan Feldman. Back
2 Searching the Internet, by Karen Campbell. Back
3URL - another computer geek acronymn which means the unique name given to the page - you know, the long string of characters with lots of slashes / and words. Look up in the location box of your browser, you'll see the url of this page, which is www.wwnorton.com/college/history/ralph/research/searchin.htm. Get it? If not, ask a techie. Back
RESEARCH: Ralph'sWorld Civilizations
Page created by Thomas Pearcy, Ph.D. and Mary Dickson.
We welcome your comments. Please contact Steve Hoge, Editor.
Last revised June 5, 1997.
Copyright (c) 1996. W. W. Norton Publishing. All Rights Reserved