GURU INTERVIEW: SEARCH ENGINE EXPERT GREG NOTESS
Greg R. Notess [email protected]
Reference Librarian and Associate Professor, Montana State University
author of Government Information on the Internet
Check out his Search Engine Showdown at http://notess.com and follow the links there to his "On the Net" columns from ONLINE and DATABASE
Marylaine: Could you tell me how you fit all your online work and your work with the magazines in with active work as a librarian and teacher at your university? How did you get started with your web work?
Greg: I'm still trying to figure out how to do it all. It comes from having too many interests, I suppose. I first got seriously involved with the Internet 1990-91 when I found out I could use telnet to access other library catalogs remotely with telnet. I presented a poster session at the 1991 Online and CD-ROM conference about Internet library catalogs, and it proved to be a popular topic. After that I got a request from Nancy Garman, editor of Online to write an article, and then she decided she wanted a column about the Internet. From there, I just rode the general wave of the Internet. Since librarians here at MSU have faculty status and faculty obligations for publishing or perishing, my writing and speaking is considered part of the job.
As I started speaking about, writing about, and using search engines on a regular basis, I decided to set up a single Web site to use as my own reference and so that I wouldn't need to create a separate Web site for each talk. That way I can direct my audience to the site for updates in the constantly changing world of search engines.
Marylaine: How much time are you able to spend working the reference desk these days? Do you think it's important to keep on spending time with real live students?
Greg: This semester I'm on the desk about 12 hours a week, plus the occasional weekend and other times that I help out in passing. For understanding current information seeking patterns, it is essential to keep in touch with patrons and their information needs. It has been fascinating watching how patterns have changed in recent years. Certainly the Internet has greatly changed how some students search for information. It also has been teaching them new techniques which they then bring to the library electronic realm. For example, they try to use a + or quotes in the library catalog. On the other hand, the majority that I see are as unsophisticated about their information seeking behavior as they have always been. They may or may not be more computer literate, but I have not noticed any great increase in information literacy (despite our continuing efforts). There is still plenty of work for us to do.
Marylaine: You've been an internet guru since telnet was state of the art. Of all the changes you've seen, which ones in your opinion had the most direct benefit for academic libraries?
Greg: That's a great question. I would say there are two that come to mind. First of all is the commonality of the Internet connection and flat rate access. Rather than using separate networks to connect to online resources that would have to be paid by the minute, this flat rate or subsidized access combined with general universal coverage have made online information much more readily available than in the previous decade. That is why all the major database providers have moved towards Internet delivery. And almost none of them charge network fees. The simple ability for establishing connections between the data on a computer thousands of miles away and the computers on our desktops makes a world of difference.
Second, the ability to publish information has become so easy with the Web that there is now a great treasure trove of information that would have been unavailable or extremely difficult to find in the past. And while some is certainly less than high quality, there is a great deal of very specific information on the Web that was just not available at all in the past. So basically, the Internet has provided better access to information and more information. How could a librarian complain?
Marylaine: What new developments do you see most promise in? Are there any technologies you're waiting for with bated breath?
Greg: None? There are plenty of new technologies waiting in the wings and currently under development: XML and integrated meta data formats, DSL, and the rest of the alphabet soup. Yet it many ways they are simply building on the existing technical Internet infrastructure. I tend to be more interested in the practical applications of the technology rather than the "Gee whiz look what we can do" aspect. The basics of TCP/IP and HTML hold the greatest promise. XML hold great promise, but most librarians will probably see the results of XML powered systems in terms of delivering information products as Web pages. Most of all, I suppose like many others, I am hoping simply for faster and more consistent Internet access.
Marylaine: One of the hazards of being an internet librarian is that because of constant changes in web sites, search tools, site design, what you knew yesterday may be wrong today. Have any principles and rules continued to hold true over this span?
Greg: Evaluate, evaluate, evaluate. Question the information source, and analyze the search engine's behavior. Think about underlying databases, and consider the publisher and author biases.
Information has remained the same.
Marylaine: Obviously in your Search Engine Showdown feature you point out that each search engine has unique searching abilities, and I would guess that you would personally use a variety of search engines depending on the question asked. But do you tend to use one search engine the most because in general, you like the results you get there? Which one and why?
Greg: My search engine of first resort changes every few months. I do indeed tend to use many search engines, especially when they have a specific search feature not available on others. For example, to find which sites link to a specific URL I often use AltaVista for its link: ability. I use Northern Light's power search to find recently revised sites since I could limit and sort by date.
In general, when I'm trying to find out if something is mentioned on the Web, I first use a phrase search on the largest search engine. That used to be AltaVista, (http://altavista.digital.com/) then Northern Light (http://www.northernlight.com/), and more recently Fast Search (http://www.alltheweb.com/). If I don't find it there, I go to the next largest. That is part of the reason that I keep running size comparisons for Search Engine Showdown. I used to visit directories to find an organization's Web site if I could not guess the URL, but lately I've been using Google (http://www.google.com) more often for that, since its relevance based on links tends to be quite successful for that kind of search. I still use directories for general topics or groups of business, but I use the Open Directory more often these days than Yahoo!.
Marylaine: How do you keep current? What do you read, subscribe to, attend, etc?
Greg: At the rate with which change occurs on the Internet, part of keeping current simply involves constant use of the Net. However, reading print material is a welcome relief from the constant glare of the monitor. Lately I've found the Industry Standard (http://www.thestandard.com/) and its coverage of the Internet economy to be quite informative. I find that understanding the economic underpinnings to be helpful in explaining why the search engines do certain things. In print, I also browse Web Techniques, Wired, and Internet World. For Web site management issues I browse Web4Lib and for keeping up with government information I watch govdoc-l.
And I read the Web. I use current awareness tools to check for changes on several sites, and I try to browse widely on other sites. I'll often look at the underlying code to see how sites have accomplished a certain design. I also look at the dates on the files, since it is amazing how many sites have outdated pages (where the information may have been accurate when the page was created but is so no longer).
Marylaine: Greg, thanks so much. It's been enlightening.
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Ex Libris: an E-Zine for Librarians and Other Information Junkies.
Copyright, Marylaine Block, 1999.