Search engines

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Search engines for the Internet have only existed since the early- to mid-1990s. The function of an Internet search engine is to give results from a query based on an index at the disposal of a particular search engine.


There is a distinction between browsing a directory of the Internet and searching based on an index of the Internet. Directories are a pre-defined set of terms with which the information to be made searchable is ordered. Indexes gather all of the words on a web page and allow them to be used as search terms.



Early in the life of search engines, librarians were concerned with these processes and felt that they knew best about indexing and categorization. Weinberg (1996) writes, “Stoll described amateurish classifications that were developed for the Internet by non-librarians. After calling library classification schemes ‘antiquated and inadequate,’ Steinberg proceeds to describe categorization schemes devised by non-librarians that have even greater flaws” (Indexing the Internet, ¶ 2).


Promising Youngster

After a few years of the Internet being a novelty for librarians and the public alike, there began to be more talk of using Internet resources for practical purposes during reference inquiries. Janet Balas wrote in 1998 about a few books and websites designed to help reference librarians answer questions using the Internet as a resource. She noted that, “To use the electronic resources of the Internet effectively, reference librarians must learn how to use the various search engines to their best advantage. This is a daunting task since, like the Internet itself, these search engines are constantly changing“ (p. 42). Her statement is timeless in that the Internet is always changing and new search technologies are continuously being developed, and for reference librarians to stay up-to-date with these advanced tools will only help them perform services at an optimum level.


Rebellious Youth

Skip forward another couple of years and a new relationship with web-based reference service arises. By the year 2000 some librarians were beginning to feel threatened by commercial services that aimed to answer questions for people 24/7 over the Internet. Sites like Ask Jeeves and Webhelp not only endangered reference usage in libraries, but also the quality of information that inquirers would receive. Because of the corporate nature of these web sites, critics argued, “As librarians, we know our patrons are our investors and our job is to look after their interests. That function becomes even more critical in dealing with all the inaccurate and misleading information on the Web” (Coffman & McGlamery, 2000, p. 68).


Chastised Adolescent

A study was published in 2003 that aimed to measure the accuracy of answers given by reference librarians and the researchers behind the fee-based Google Answers. The librarians came out ahead in accuracy and clarity but with a only a small margin. The study suggested the best solution is not for reference librarians and Google to compete, but to learn from each other and improve service to everyone (Alvestrand, 2003).


Maturing Young Adult

Finally, it must be noted, that with the ever-increasing size of the Google tent and its various specialty search engines (web, images, video), Google Scholar has caused quite a stir among the academic reference librarian community. In a point/counterpoint paper on the subject, Martin Kesselman and Sarah Barbara Watstein (2005) examine some of the issues being dealt with in academic libraries. They say that libraries “worry that students will neglect the the important subject databases with value-added thesauri and subject indexing, complex search and limiting capabilities, likely broader scope of materials in terms of publication time frame and numbers of materials indexed” (p. 381) of their extensive electronic collections in place of a simple Google interface. Conversely, proponents in the libraries see Google Scholar as an opportunity to publicize the benefits of the library. It is argued that, “Getting the word out to students about Google Scholar™ and making Google Scholar™ easy to find in a library's web site will lead users to library web sites and help insure that students will also find other resources offered by the library on their own” (p. 383).



Alvestrand, V. (2003). Librarians beat Google in quest for answers. Information World Review, (196), 8. Retrieved November 21, 2006, from EBSCO Business Source Premier database.


Balas, J. (1998). The importance of mastering search engines [Electronic version]. Computers in Libraries, 18(5), 42-44.


Coffman, S., & McGlamery, S. (2000). The librarian and Mr. Jeeves [Electronic version]. American Libraries, 31(5), 66-69.


Kesselman, M., & Watstein, S. B. (2005). Google Scholar(tm) and libraries: point/counterpoint [Electronic version]. Reference Services Review, 33(4), 380-387.


Weinberg, B. H. (1996). Complexity in indexing systems -- abandonment and failure: implications for organizing the Internet. Paper presented at the ASIS 1996 Annual Conference Proceedings, Baltimore, MD. Retrieved November 21, 2006, from


Thomas A. Keswick