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Most reliable search tool could be your librarian

Web search engines may hustle up quick results, but librarians dig up online information you can trust, say experts.

Your child wants to learn more about Martin Luther King Jr. You might consider consulting a librarian instead of Google, AOL or Microsoft search engines.

Using the keywords "Martin Luther King," the first result on Google and AOL--whose search is powered by Google--and the second result on Microsoft Windows Live search is a Web site created by a white supremacists group that purports to provide "a true historical examination" of the civil rights leader.

Granted, there are sponsored links above the result on all three sites and a "snapshot" of links to related content on AOL above the link on that Web site. But given that many people rely on the information they get in the top few results, someone could come away with a skewed perception of the man.

That's where librarians come in. While the Web is good for offering quick results from a broad range of sources, which may or may not be trustworthy, librarians can help people get access to more authoritative information and go deeper with their research.

"There's a problem with information illiteracy among people. People find information online and don't question whether it's valid or not."
--Chris Sherman, executive editor of SearchEngineWatch.com

"There are limitations with the search engines," said Marilyn Parr, public service and collections access officer at the Library of Congress. "You can type in 'Thomas Jefferson' in any search engine and you will get thousands of hits. How do you then sort through those to find the ones that are verifiable information, authentic and not someone's personal opinion?"

Most people don't bother to look at results past the first page or spend much time evaluating the source of the material, experts say.

"There's a problem with information illiteracy among people. People find information online and don't question whether it's valid or not," said Chris Sherman, executive editor of industry blog site SearchEngineWatch.com. "I think that's where librarians are extremely important. They are trained to evaluate the quality of the information."

AOL spokesman Andrew Weinstein said the company has contacted Google about the Martin Luther King search results.

"We get all of our organic search results from Google, as you know, so we don't set the algorithms by which they are ranked," Weinstein wrote in an e-mail. "Although we can't micro-manage billions of search results, our users would not expect this to be the first result for that common search, and we do not want to promote the Web sites of hate organizations, so we have asked Google to remove this particular site from the results it provides to us."

At Google, a Web site's ranking is determined by computer algorithms using thousands of factors to calculate a page's relevance to any given query, a company representative said. The company can't tweak the results because of that automation and the need to maintain the integrity of the results, she said.

"In this particular example, the page is relevant to the query and many people have linked to it, giving it more PageRank than some of the other pages. These two factors contribute to its ranking," the representative wrote in an e-mail.

The results on Microsoft's search engine are "not an endorsement, in any way, of the viewpoints held by the owners of that content, said Justin Osmer, senior product manager for Windows Live Search.

"The ranking of our results is done in an automated manner through our algorithm which can sometimes lead to unexpected results," he said. "We always work to maintain the integrity of our results to ensure that they are not editorialized."

Search engines have added tools, like the ability to refine the search by date and source, and some offer suggestions for narrowing the search or offer shortcuts to more popular content. Some even offer academic vertical search sites, as Google Scholar and Windows Live Search do. Windows Live Search also allows users to create macros to do automated searches on their favorite Web sites. But many people either don't know about those tools or know how to use them to improve their queries.

"For some people, if the answer isn't in the first few results it might as well not be there," said Gary Price, founder and editor of the ResourceShelf blog and director of online resources at Ask.com. "No matter how smart and helpful search engines get, they're never going to replace librarians."

Search engines say the situation isn't so dire. The general public is getting more sophisticated in its search skills, said Tim Mayer, senior director of product management on Yahoo's search team.

"The amount of keywords people are entering is growing" to between two and three words, he said. "Search engine quality is improving and people are generally finding what they're looking for more often."

However, without some universal agreement on categorizing content, Web searches will always be lacking, some experts say.

"On the Web, every word is a keyword. It's such a mess," said Jason Strauss, head librarian at the Wright Institute, a graduate school of psychology in Berkeley, Calif. "When I use Google Search I almost always limit my search to the top-level domains dot-edu or dot-org. They usually have higher-quality information."

In addition, search engines also are only offering up a fraction of all the information out there. There is still the relatively untapped so-called "deep Web" of information behind corporate firewalls and password-protected Web sites. To get to the information, people have to know where the sites are and often have to pay to subscribe.

One such popular site is LexisNexis, which lets users search more than 36,000 news and public record sites, and other sources. Another is WestLaw, which provides access to legal records.

The definitive index and abstract database for psychology academics is PsycInfo, which provides access to journals, conference proceedings and other relevant information and allows users to search specific fields like "author" and "title," Strauss said. Keywords are selected by editors from a set list of terms.

"You end up with the ability to do a 'perfect search.' You get everything about the subject and nothing that is not related to it," Strauss said. "Using the Web, you are trying to think of how other people are phrasing things" to come up with keywords, which leads to mixed results, he added.

Even the federal government is addressing the Web search problem; it is trying to make it easier for citizens to track government spending. President Bush this week that calls for the creation of an online database that will let people type in names of companies and states, for example, to search for government grants and contracts. The information is already on the Web, but people don't know where to find it.

A lot of people don't know that they can get access to much of the walled-off information in specialized databases for free if they have a public library card, said Price, of Ask.com and ResourceShelf.

Other helpful sites are the Librarians Internet Index, which offers quick lists of carefully vetted, reliable Web sites, the Internet Public Library and Infomine, a collection of scholarly resources on the Internet, according to Price.

With the advent of the Web and search engines, people's interaction with libraries has changed. While the number of reference questions at California public libraries has been declining, the difficulty of the questions has increased, said Ira Bray, a technology consultant at the California State Library.

Gone are the days of calling or visiting the library to find out a famous person's birthplace or the gross national product for the U.S. in 1972--you can get that in two seconds on Google. But you'll need more than a search engine to figure out, for example, what factors were at play in the growth of the U.S. economy that year, said Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Internet & American Life Project, which conducts research on the impact of the Internet on Americans.

"The idea of the 1950s librarian, that's outdated," said Sarah Houghton-Jan, information Web services manager at the San Mateo County Library in Northern California. "You find people who are expert at searching the Web and using online tools; high-level information experts instead of someone who just stamps books at the checkout desk."