Answering Reference Questions Using the Internet

Someone asks a reference question...

Is it a ready reference question?

  • Can the answer likely be found by checking one or two handy sources?

If so, try:

If the question is more complicated or complex...

Get a Handle on the Question

  • Start in on the reference interview.
  • Ask yourself , do I know exactly what it is I'm looking for?

Aspects to consider:

  • subject area (get as specific as possible)
  • type of information (statistics, articles, etc.)
  • amount and scope of information
  • date or time frame
  • desired format
  • user level

Select a Resource

  • Based on your experience, where is the best place to look for the answer?
  • Do you know of an individual or organization that produces the sort of information you need?

Options include:

  • your library's collection (including staff members)
  • referrals to outside agencies
    • local museums, government offices, social agencies
  • the Internet, especially the Web
Undertaking an Internet Search

Focus Your Efforts

  • Start constructing a search strategy and search terms.
  • The goal should be to increase search precision without inadvertently eliminating potentially valuable resources.


Principal search terms:

  • primary keywords, phrases or concepts
  • secondary keywords, phrases or concepts
  • necessary truncation
  • synonyms, related terms, alternate spellings
  • antonyms or excluded terms

Additional search qualifiers

  • Boolean logic, proximity operators, nesting
  • date restrictions
  • host machine restrictions (e.g.: .com, .edu,
  • field searching (e.g.: title, URL)
  • format (e.g.: text, image, sound clips)
Start Searching

Rapid Strike!

  • Try an educated guess as to where you will find the answer.
  • Don't look for the answer per se, but rather consider where the answer could probably be found.
  • If you can't find a useful source in one or two guesses, stop.


Specific Types of Information

Recent or Breaking News

  • Very current information is invisible to regular search engines.
  • They can take up to several weeks to find and incorporate new information.


Searching the Web

General Searches

  • Is your goal to locate a few good sources of information to get you going?
  • Do you need a general overview of a subject?
  • Do you need to browse a subject area or narrow a broad topic?


Specific Searches

  • Are you after the answer to a specific question?
  • Do you need to research a topic in more detail or collect information from a variety of sources?


And when all else fails...

Tips and Tricks of Last Resort

  • No luck? Nothing working? Desperate?

Some possibilities:

  • check your spelling
  • re-examine search terms and qualifiers
  • use a variety of search tools
  • Selete subdirectories from URLs starting from the right
    • good for bringing life to dead links
  • look for links to good (but not perfect) sites
  • ask another librarian for help
  • subscribe to Stumpers-L
    • beware: this is a high volume group

Internet Sites for Reference Librarians

Internet Ready Reference Tools

Internet Directories (E-mail and Telephone)

Librarian-Produced Homepages

Internet News Sites

Online Newspapers

Newsgroup (Usenet) Archives

Broad Subject Directories

Specialized Directories and Engines

General Search Engines

Meta Search Engines

This Web page was produced by Joel Minion under the auspices of the British Columbia Library Association and the Library Services Branch of the Ministry of Community, Aboriginal and Women's Services, British Columbia.

Last Updated: 03 September 2002

Copyright 2002. All rights reserved.