You can look it up: The Web provides a fast, easy route to research

Doing research on the Web is like typing on a word processor—there are very few
things you have to know in advance.


You can consult dozens, even hundreds of dictionaries and encyclopedias online, but you
don’t need any of them to start a search.


Say you want to find out how to spell the name of the physicist who discovered the
famous uncertainty principle.


Go to the Yahoo main page at http://www.yahoo.com—always
a good place to start—and key in “uncertainty.” Werner Heisenberg’s
name pops up high on the hit list.


How about the Web address for the National Institute of Standards and Technology? Key
in NIST and see dozens of general and specific links.


What if Yahoo doesn’t produce what you want? On the same page is a link to another
search engine, AltaVista, at http://www.altavista.digital.com,
which gives a different set of results—not less correct, just different. The same
holds for virtually anything else you look up.


Want information about the former secretary of State named Kissinger? Key in the last
name and you find that his first name is Henry and he has a Ph.D. Armed with that
information, go back to the search box, enter Dr. Henry Kissinger and find more than
300,000 links in AltaVista alone.


Another good metasite for quick reference is http://www.eb.com,
where you can search a limited online version of the Encyclopedia Britannica. It supplies
a brief biography of Kissinger that says his middle name is Alfred and his birthday is May
27. Not much is free at this site, but it’s useful in narrowing a search before
continuing at other sites.


OK, you could have found out that much from an office reference book, although it
probably would have taken longer just to locate the book than it did to find the answer
online.


How about a more difficult topic? In an earlier column I wrote about Noise Cancellation
Technology Inc.’s NoiseBuster headphones, which actively eliminate steady background
noises. Type “noisebuster” in the Yahoo search engine and find many
noise-related sites. Try doing that with a print reference book.


The important thing in Internet research is to keep from getting bogged down in
trivialities or in looking for too specific a site. Begin at the metasites, which
constantly update their links and reference material. That seems to be the only way to
keep from getting overwhelmed by the Web.


So how do you find all the metasearch sites? Right, just key “search site”
into one of the search engines.


Users who occasionally need classical references for speeches, reports or training will
find plenty when they search under the name Gutenberg Project. It has thousands of
full-text classical works ready for download.


Another advantage of searching on the Web is that information is constantly updated. A
recent column on quantum computing contained two bad Web addresses. They were correct when
I wrote them, but the page at http://www.feynman.Stanford.EDU/qcomp/
had been eliminated, and the other, Professor Anton Zeilinger’s home page, had
changed to http://www.uibk.ac.at/c/c7/c704/qo/people/az.html.
I found the new address for the GCN readers who had contacted me simply by keying in
Zeilinger’s name at Yahoo.


Want a single Web page you can bookmark as a place to begin a lot of office-oriented
reference searches? Surf over to http://ansernet.rcls.org/deskref/,
which has an array of buttons for everything from government manuals to statistics to
atlases. Under patents, you can find links to the Patent and Trademark Office and IBM
Corp.’s giant patent site.


Also at the straightforward ansernet site is a set of writer’s resources with
links to style guides and common errors in English. There are biographies of presidents
and first ladies, 4,000 years of women in history, African-American inventors, maps,
dictionaries, and just about every other commonly referenced topic.


This isn’t even a major search engine such as Excite or Yahoo, just a fast link to
a great set of basic reference works, courtesy of the Ramapo Catskill Library System of
Middletown, N.Y. n


John McCormick, a free-lance writer and computer consultant, has been working with
computers since the early 1960s. E-mail him at powerusr@penn.com.

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