Applications of ICT in Libraries/Locating Information

This page is designed for the use of students undertaking the Diploma (Diploma ICTL) or the Advanced Diploma (Advanced Diploma ICTL) in Applications of ICT in Libraries.

These qualifications were developed by the Scottish Library and Information Council (SLIC)' and are validated by the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA)

Locating Information on Behalf of Clients is a core unit in both the Diploma and Advanced Diploma programmes.


This unit aims to develop your skills in working logically through the steps of a reference enquiry, typical for a public library, using Internet resources.

Reference and enquiry work has always been an integral part of the public library service. Nowadays many queries are answered using electronic rather than print sources. However, the processes and strategies used are the same with both print and electronic searches. So, any experience you have gained in answering queries through printed reference sources will enhance your competence in electronic searches.

Enquiry work can provide library staff with a great deal of job satisfaction. No two enquiries, or enquirers, are exactly the same – so searches for information are varied. Sometimes an information search will present a real intellectual challenge and require you to adopt an innovative or ingenious approach to tackling the enquiry. In such cases getting the required result for the enquirer is doubly rewarding. An effective enquiry service enhances the library’s reputation with its clients and creates a positive image for library staff – as professional, efficient and helpful people.

If you are a member of staff in a public library who deals with information enquiries from clients and answers them using the Internet, you will have developed some or all of the expertise required for this unit. Read through the following information carefully. It summarises the knowledge and skills which you need in order to produce evidence of your competence.

The unit involves interacting with library clients, establishing their information needs and using the Internet to search for the required information. This must be done in a real library environment and you will need access to the Internet, preferably broadband. Specifically you are asked to:

Define the precise nature of the enquiry in conjunction with the client

The main knowledge and/or skills required are:

  • reference interview techniques
  • open and closed questions
  • determining the nature of information to be provided– quantity, level, format
  • constraints – deadlines for completion, currency of information and language

Create a search strategy to fully satisfy the enquiry

The main knowledge and/or skills required are:

  • choice of search terms
  • structuring the search
  • common search engines
  • directories
  • meta crawlers
  • portals
  • bibliographic databases

Evaluate the results of the search in terms of validity of information found and its appropriateness in meeting the client’s needs

The main knowledge and/or skills required are:

  • validity of information - reliability, accuracy and currency
  • measuring success of search in terms of client’s requirements – sufficiency, format and language
  • structuring and saving of search results for presentation to client, later retrieval, future updating


The unit is assessed through four short searches and one extended search. These will be searches related to typical information needs of public library clients. Some examples are:

Short Searches

Finding out:

  • the current community charge rates in your locality
  • the sequel to a novel which the client has recently read
  • the post code of a firm for which the client knows name, street and town
  • whether UK citizens require a visa to visit Thailand

Extended Search

A client wishes to explore the topic of asylum seekers in Britain. You would produce information giving Government policy, views of other political parties, statistics on immigration etc.

Defining the precise nature of the enquiry in conjunction with the clientEdit

The Reference InterviewEdit

Defining the precise nature of the enquiry in conjunction with the client is often referred to as the reference interview. However, you may not carry this out face to face. Instead you may carry out the interview over the telephone or through a series of e-mails. It is undoubtedly easier and quicker though if you can manage to meet the client.

There are three main stages here:

  • Finding out what the client wants to know
  • Finding out why the client wants the information
  • Finishing off the reference interview

Finding out what the client wants to knowEdit

Before you can answer a question posed by a client, you must find out exactly what that question is. Experienced colleagues will be able to tell you of many situations where there has been a misunderstanding with a reference client, resulting in wasted time and effort and sometimes embarrassment.

Whichever means of communication you use, do remember that the reference interview is a two-way interaction or dialogue and you must take responsibility for the efficiency of the communication process.

The interview is likely to begin with the client asking you a question. Your task is to probe further until you are fully satisfied that you are clear exactly what the client wishes to find out. Remember to ask for clarification from the client about the topic, e.g. ask them to spell uncommon words, expand on the topic under investigation etc.

Finding out why the client wants the informationEdit

It is extremely helpful if you can establish early on in the interaction the reason why the client wishes the information requested. Tact may be required here, however, as some clients may be unwilling to give this information. This is especially likely where the enquiry is of a sensitive or confidential nature, such as a medical or financial problem. If the client appears uncomfortable or evasive when asked why the information is being sought, then it is unwise to probe further.

You should ascertain the starting point of the enquiry in order to avoid time being wasted on finding information which the client already knows. Ask whether the client has already undertaken any research on the topic and what the results of this were. This can give guidance on successful and unsuccessful information searching approaches. But do not write off a particular approach just because a client assures you that it has yielded no information. Remember the client is not an information specialist – you are! – and so the client may not have searched as thoroughly or as efficiently as you would.

Finishing off the reference interviewEdit

By the end of the reference interview you should be confident that the nature of the enquiry has been fully explored and that the information required by the client has been specifically defined. The reference interview also provides the opportunity to establish any special needs of the client e.g.: visual or auditory impairment.

And finally, do remember to record contact details for the client. In the excitement of exploring the enquiry and establishing the client’s precise needs, it is all too easy to forget this important information. So make sure that every reference interview ends by your recording name, address, telephone, fax, e-mail details, as appropriate. If you will be phoning the client, it is also polite to note when it is convenient for the client to receive your call.

YouTube How not to conduct the reference interview [1] Auckland City Libraries The reference interview [2]

Spoken and written communicationEdit

Good communication skills are key to the reference interview. This topic provides a good opportunity for practising and refining your communication skills.

  Before proceeding, list the key factors you think would lead to good communication in a reference interview. Write these down on a piece of paper.

Factors leading to good communicationEdit

We think the important factors are:

  • Appropriate spoken language
  • Appropriate body language
  • Good feedback especially on the telephone
  • Good note taking skills
  • Clear and grammatical e-mails

Spoken languageEdit

You should use language which is appropriate to the client, avoiding talking down to the client or, at the other extreme, baffling the client with specialist jargon. If you do have to use a term which the client may not understand, e.g. “bibliography”, be sure to explain it.

For example, how would you explain “search engine” to a client who is not familiar with this term?

You might say something like “A search engine allows you to search for websites related to a particular topic. To use a search engine, you have to choose and type in appropriate key words describing the topic

Body languageEdit

In face-to-face situations, use appropriate body language designed to set the client at ease and promote effective communication. Smile and greet the client by name if possible. Lean forward slightly and use eye contact to show your interest in the conversation. Try to carry out the interview in a place where both you and the client are sitting comfortably and at the same level, preferably side by side.

What would you deduce from the body language of a client who fidgeted during the reference interview?

The most likely explanations are that the client:

  • is in a hurry, perhaps because of another appointment
  • may feel nervous in the library environment or about asking for your assistance with their query.

Test your understanding of body language with this simple quiz -


With telephone communications you will have to be careful in order to make sure that you fully understand what the client says because you will get no clues from their body language. You should use appropriate feedback techniques to ensure understanding of the client’s responses. For instance, you might:

  • Rephrase what the client has said and repeat this back to them
  • Ask if you can read out a summary of the enquiry based on the notes you have made.

See if you can pick up clues from the tone of the client’s voice. Conversely, make sure that your tone is positive and encouraging. Smiling as you speak into the phone generates a pleasant tone of voice which encourages helpful responses.

Note takingEdit

In both face to face and telephone interactions, it is essential to take written notes of the main points of the conversation. These notes are your reference for checking that you have fully understood the details of the client’s enquiry.

You may have to put the query on one side for actioning later or you may pass it on to a colleague to deal with. In both cases a written record will be essential.

Writing e-mailsEdit

If you are using e-mail to communicate with the client, it is important to establish a cordial tone while remaining concise and to the point. Writing clearly and grammatically is key to this, as is structuring your e-mail so that the client can follow it easily and respond appropriately.

The correct sequence for actioning an e-mail enquiry is as follows:

  1. Thank the client for the enquiry
  2. Summarise what the enquiry consists of
  3. Give your proposals for how you will action the enquiry
  4. State when you will provide the search results
  5. Request confirmation from the client that your proposed actions and timescale are acceptable

Open and Closed QuestionsEdit

In the reference interview, you will use both open and closed questions. These have different uses. It is important to be able to distinguish between the two types of question and to use them appropriately.

Closed questions prompt yes/no or short factual answers, such as:

Q. What time did you come to the library? A. 9 o’clock

Q. Is your daughter called Amelia Austin? A. Yes

Closed questions are mainly used in the reference interview context to:

  • elicit specific pieces of information from the client
  • gain confirmation that the your understanding of what the client has said is correct - an important feedback tool

The following are examples of closed questions:

Do you use a left-handed mouse?

This is a closed question which will be answered by yes or no.

What is the charge for printing a page of A4 text?

This is a closed question which will be answered by a specific sum of money such as 10p.

Open questions encourage longer answers, such as:

Q. Why did you ask for a dictionary? A. I wanted to check whether there was a difference in meaning between “main” and “mane”.

The main uses of open questions in the reference interview context are to:

  • establish rapport with the client
  • set the scene for the enquiry
  • gain background information which is relevant to the enquiry

The following are examples of open questions:

What will your students be using this information for?

A typical reply might be: "These are students undertaking an initial course in professional cookery. They will need the data to understand the calorific content of the foods in the recipe.”

Can you tell me how you went about looking for this information?

A typical reply might be: "I started off looking up autism in the encyclopedias but the information was too general and not up to date enough.

You will use both open and closed questions at appropriate times. When framing a question, always think of the type of response you hope to generate and word the question so as to encourage either a brief or an extended answer.

Nature of information requiredEdit

Apart from the actual topic of investigation, there are other factors which need to be taken into account before a member of library staff will embark on the information search.

There are three main factors:

  • the quantity of information required
  • the level of information required
  • the format of information required


What appears to be the same request for information could produce results differing in quantity by orders of magnitude. You must clarify the scale of information required by the client in order to fully satisfy their needs.

It may be that reference to a single book or website is required. Alternatively many in-depth sources of information may be required so that the client can analyse a breadth of opinion on the search subject.

Providing too much information is just as unhelpful as providing too little.


It is essential that the information provided is at a level of complexity which enables the client’s full comprehension but does not patronise the client or tell them what they already know.

The following points are a good guide:

  • the client’s age (but remember age does not automatically bring wisdom!)
  • the client’s educational attainment
  • the client’s display of specialist knowledge
  • the client’s linguistic ability
  • whether the information is intended for the client themselves or for use by other people.

Tactful questioning can be used to make an estimation of the points listed above.


The results may include information in various formats.

Difficulties may arise if the client has expressed an initial preference for a format in which the information is not actually available. If the information is only available in a limited number of formats, you must alert the client to this and ascertain if any of these formats are acceptable.

If the search is not carried out with the client present, you must ascertain if the client can visit the library at a later time to access the search results or if the information must be in a format which can be e-mailed or posted to the client.

There are many formats available, including several as a result of the introduction of ICT. Your search may direct the client to items of library stock, to be used in the library or borrowed for home use. This could include:

  • Printed reference sources or information CD-ROMs
  • Books, audio or video material for home borrowing
  • Magazines and journals
  • Pamphlets or leaflets

The search results may be bibliographies or lists of website references for the client to follow up. The results may be viewed on screen by client, in the form of text, audio or video.

Create a search strategy to fully satisfy the client’s enquiryEdit

Choosing search termsEdit

Searching for information using the most appropriate key words is important in any reference enquiry. But it is arguably even more important in an Internet search than when you are looking through printed indexes. When carrying out a manual search, the human mind can make links and jump from one search term to another. Computers on the other hand stick strictly to the script and will only find information which matches what you have instructed them to look for.

Let’s look at how you can derive the search terms for an enquiry. You must be able to analyse a topic and break it down into its component parts. At its simplest you just extract the significant words, usually the nouns and verbs, and use these as search terms. An example would be a client asking for information about “How would you cook a vegetable like fennel?” Which word(s) would you choose as search term(s) in this enquiry?

The best choice would be "cook" and "fennel" - these two words are the essence of the enquiry. "How would you" is too general and "vegetable" would only be needed if there was some ambiguity over the nature of fennel.

The above is not necessarily true depending on the search tool you are using. For example if you use YouTube and type in - how do you... for almost any subject you will find video showing exactly what you want to know.

Examples of search termsEdit

Here are some further examples of enquiries where you would be able to use one or more words from the client’s initial question as search terms. The search terms are in bold.

I need some advice on keeping a greyhound as a pet.

What are the symptoms of diabetes?

Who is the chief executive of CILIP (the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals)?

What colour is the flower commonly known as ragwort?

Of course, the question as posed by the enquirer may not contain words which are the best search terms. You may need to think of alternatives in the form of synonyms (words which mean the same) and words related to the terminology used by the client.


List some reasons why synonyms and related words might be better search terms.


It is important to consider synonyms of a search term because the word given to you by the client may be one of many which describes the concept to be searched for, e.g. if a client wishes to know about illness, it may be useful to carry out a search with the word disease instead.

Try this example for yourself. Carry out two searches using the same search engine, the first with sports competitor as your search term and the second using sports opponent and look at the differences in the results.

The term suggested by the client may be a less commonly used or out of date expression, so it is vital to think of more usual or appropriate synonyms. The client might ask about Ceylon when requiring information about the country now known as Sri Lanka. It would therefore be appropriate to search under both Ceylon and Sri Lanka.

If you have time test your knowledge of the English language here -

Related termsEdit

Sometimes it is useful to use a related term for the word given by the client. When a client asks for information on malnutrition in Africa, a related term could be used instead of the rather broad one. An individual country could be substituted, such as Sudan. Of course, you must take into account that using related terms can change the nature of your search. In this example, using Sudan will give you results which are influenced by the particular problems suffered by this country which differ from other parts of the continent.

Can you come up with one or more potentially useful related terms in searching for each of the following?

  • web 2.0 applications in a library context
  • genetically modified crops
  • popular music in the 1960’s
  • saving using insurance policies
  • capital punishment in the USA

Some examples are:

For web 2.0 applications you could use social media

For genetically modified crops: Frankenstein seeds, Monsanto, soya

For popular music in the 1960’s: the name of any singer or group from this era – the Beatles, Dusty Springfield

For capital punishment in the USA: death row, electric chair, gas chamber, names of individual states where capital punishment is used e.g. Texas

Another aspect to be considered when choosing search terms is that while the client may give you descriptive terms for the information required, it may be more effective to search on actual names of individuals or organisations or concepts. Taking the earlier search regarding malnutrition in Africa, the description malnutrition could lead you to search using the key words World Health Organisation. This will lead to the WHO site where information on diseases in specific African countries is quickly located.

Can you come up with a name of an organisation or individual which could be a useful specific term in searching for each of the following?

horse racing the royal family relativity theory college courses

There are many related terms which apply to each of these. Here are the examples which we thought of:

Shergar, British Horse Racing Board

The name of any member of the royal family, such as the Prince of Wales

Albert Einstein

The name of your local college

Note that the previous three techniques depend both on your ability to interpret the client’s description and on your own general knowledge. With experience and in discussion with knowledgeable colleagues, your skills will increase.


You should also keep in mind that some words are ambiguous. China can mean a country in the Far East or pottery products. The English language is particularly rich in such ambiguities. In the reference interview you will have clarified the meaning of any such ambiguous words. Now at the search stage, you should either use a non-ambiguous synonym (if one exists) or add an additional search term to remove the ambiguity.

Some simple examples are:

Cycle – is it the bicycle or a rotation? Yarn – could mean thread or a tall story. Kids – could lead to children or young goats.

Structuring an Internet searchEdit

As an information professional, you need to know all the shortcuts to information that client’s request. This means more than just typing search terms into Google!

Structuring the search involves the choice of different search engines, metacrawlers, directories and portals or, where you are already familiar with appropriate websites and their content, direct interrogation of these.

In order to search effectively on the Internet, you need to be familiar with the different types of websites used to search for information. Three general types are the search engine, the metacrawler and the directory. Each operates and is used in a different way, although several sites incorporate more than one type. For example the Google site consists of both a search engine and a directory.

Search EnginesEdit

A search engine is a website that allows you to input words representing your search terms and uses these to come up with a list of websites which should be relevant to your search. Repeating the same search using different search engines may lead to different results due to the way in which the various search engines search the web and order the sites found. You should have experience of a selection of search engines to understand their similarities and differences. It can be illustrative to make identical searches on a number of search engines and observe the different results.

There are many different search engine sites. It is important to have a grasp of a few of the most important sites, i.e.: those that lead quickly to useful information. This can be because they specialise in a particular sector are well funded and thus comprehensive. (Such sites are popular and so command large fees for their advertising services.)


Start by familiarising yourself with some of the popular search engines which will be important in your information searching. Go to each search engine listed below and try out the search term British planes. Do not bother to use capital letters in the search terms as the search engines do not really take them into account.

Note down what you find in the layout and types of information displayed.

You will find four rather different results. Even if the same results were displayed (which is unlikely given the slightly vague search term), each search engine presents the information in a different manner.

Differences between search enginesEdit

Google and Yahoo are somewhat similar with a simple list but Google presents Wikipedia pages and news near the top.

Ask Jeeves starts off with a list of commercial sites, all wanting to do business with you and only lower down shows you ‘real’ results. But in its favour, there is a list of related searches down the right hand side.

Clusty is at first similar with a list of results and a few advertisements but there is a very useful feature in that down the left hand side, it clusters the results in categories which it has discerned.


Try Clusty out with the search term organ and you will see the value of the category feature. Because organ is ambiguous as a search term, Clusty very neatly categorises its results into organ as a musical instrument and parts of the body. You can see that in this way Clusty can lead you to a set of results more focused that the other three search engines.

Of course none of these search engines is perfect and it would unwise to rank one above another.

Compound queriesEdit

Note that our search terms consisted of two words, British and planes. When you look down the results at all four websites, you will see that only sometimes are the two words adjacent and that some of the results only have one of the words present. Most search engines have the convention that to indicate the compound term the words should be in quotes i.e.: “British planes”.


Try this out with Jersey cows. Enter the two words with and without quotes and compare your results.

Try to get as much experience as you can in using different search engines. You will learn that although using only Google, say, will give you lots of results, the use of a few different engines may give you a better overview of the range of information available for any chosen search topic.

How search engines workEdit

It is helpful to know a little about how search engines work. In simple terms, they search the Internet and look at the websites and their contents. They index the information they find on the site and in the metadata descriptions placed on each site by its creator. This information is used to lead from your search terms to the results. Of course each search engine uses its own particular methods. You can find out more about this either by doing a search or looking for information on the actual search engines.

This matching does have its pitfalls and if using ambiguous search terms you may get at best many useless results and at worst offensive ones.


Based on the maxim that more is better, Metacrawlers apply your search terms to several search engines simultaneously. Metacrawlers come in many forms and are sometimes described as meta search engines.


Familiarise yourself with some of the popular metacrawlers which you can use in your information searching:

Go to each metacrawler listed below and try out the search term British planes.

Note down what you find in the layout and types of information displayed.

Again there are different results and some very different layouts.

One major reason for using metacrawlers rather than individual search engines is that you hope to get a good spread of the best information. We would suggest that this works best early in a search to get and idea of the breadth of the information available.

Using a metacrawler also saves you having to visit each of the individual search engines.

Web directoriesEdit

Unlike search engines, web directories do not search for you but are arranged as an alphabetically ordered index to the web, developing into a tree structure of levels of sub-categories. This is somewhat similar to the subject index in a print encyclopedia.

Directories can be very useful in allowing you to home in on the general area of a reference search. However there are countless directory sites, many of which are poorly maintained. Poor maintenance manifests itself with broken links or links to inappropriate material. You should make yourself familiar with the good examples of directories and we will examine some of these now.

General purpose directory sites are provided by many search engines: Google and Yahoo are examples. Most confusingly they show both the categories which you can descend and a search facility which looks like the web search but is in fact used to search the categories.


Examine some of the general purpose web directories which you can use in your information searching:

Go to each directory listed below and try to look for information on flower arranging:

Differences between directories and search enginesEdit

One key difference between the directory and the search engine is that the entries in the directory should be compiled ‘by hand’ and not through automated searching. This may be seen as an advantage if you consider that a human is better at categorising the sites i.e. spurious sites may be eliminated.

We feel that the really useful directories are the more focused relating to environmental information. You can also appreciate that browsing through the tree structure of the directory can be time-consuming and will not automatically lead to a result.


There is a tremendous amount of information available at covering every conceivable aspect of information providing websites.

Have a look at this website for further tips.

An alternative approach is the use of Portals.

Using portalsEdit

A portal is, at its most general, a website which offers grouped links leading to information. General purpose portals, such as or, are often used as home pages by users and have links to life style sites. These sorts of general portals are rarely of use in answering information enquiries.

Some more specialised portals are tailored to be used say, to provide a child friendly web experience (e.g.:, as they give relative safety from inappropriate material.

Other specialised portals focus on particular topic areas and it is these which can save you time in answering reference enquiries.


Familiarise yourself with some of the portals which you can use in your information searching. Go to each portal listed below and get a feel for the information you could access through it.

There are thousands of portals. With experience you will get to know a number of useful ones for sourcing specific information.

Using bibliographic databasesEdit

Bibliographic databases permit the retrieval of information in a variety of formats and media. Some of these are commercial subscription services, e.g.: You must be aware which databases your library subscribes to. If you do not know this already, check it out now.

Other bibliographic databases which are free of charge include the catalogues of major libraries – such as the British Library’s catalogues containing over 12 million books, serials, printed music and maps. University libraries usually have online catalogue access, as do public libraries. Booksellers’ databases can also be useful sources of online bibliographic information.


Familiarise yourself with some of the bibliographic databases which you might use in your information searching: Go to each site listed below and get a feel for the information you could access through it.

Frequently-used websitesEdit

It is useful to acquaint yourself with sites of major organisations which hold information relating to commonly asked enquiries. Examples are government departments, your own local authority, major voluntary organisations and organisations of local interest.


Familiarise yourself with some websites which will be important sources of information for you:

Locate the Government’s Home Office website and find the telephone number for General Enquiries Locate the website for your local authority and find a list of the local councillors Locate the website for the UK Citizens Advice Bureau and find the location of your local bureau. Locate the website for your nearest airport and find a list of destinations flown to.

Now expand on this by thinking of other likely sources of specialised information and check out these websites for yourself.

Internal searchesEdit

As well as using search terms in search engines, you should notice that you can conduct a search within a website using the internal search facility provided by the site. A good example is the search facility within which permits searching by subject terms within specific areas of the site and for specified types of documents. This site has both simple and advanced search facilities.

Use the Advanced Search facility to find debates in the chamber which relate to apprenticeships.

Website suffixesEdit

When you are looking at websites, it is useful have an understanding of implications of the common suffixes used in the addresses for websites (called URLs). Some suffixes give a clue about the nature of the organisation which owns the website. Note, however, that for some suffixes there is no absolute fixed rule for their use. Thus you would find that always indicates a local or national government site in the UK. By contrast, although .org suggests a non profit-making organisation, there is no guarantee that this applies to every .org website.

Here is a list of common organisational suffixes and their meanings.

  • .ac Academic
  • .biz Business
  • .co Commercial
  • .com Commercial
  • .edu Educational
  • .gov Local or National Government
  • .int International
  • .net Network
  • .org Non profit making

Geographical suffixesEdit

There are also geographical suffixes with .uk for the United Kingdom and .ie for the Republic of Ireland. The United States is the only country which does not use a suffix. The .us suffix exists, but is seldom seen.


Go to or another similar site and find the suffixes for Internet sites for the following countries:

  • Australia
  • Canada
  • France
  • Germany
  • India
  • Pakistan

1.3 Evaluate the results of the searchEdit

Validity of informationEdit

Information found on the Internet can sometimes be problematic. It is always important for the information professional to validate information found during a search, whether this results from printed or electronic sources. However, the information found in reference books and other printed materials in public libraries has usually undergone a rigorous selection process. Thus some of the validation of information has already taken place through the selection process.

This is not the case with Internet sites. Individuals or organisations can, at almost negligible cost, upload information to websites which are then accessible throughout the World. Such sites may present information which is out of date, biased to one point of view or just plainly wrong. So all information found on the Internet must be critically evaluated. This is an important role for the information professional. Non-specialists are less likely to query the information found on the Internet – perhaps they assume that it has been vetted in some way, just like the reference books in our libraries.

There are three main criteria for validating information: reliability, accuracy and currency.


There are a number of criteria which can be used to give you confidence in the reliability of the information on a website.

  Before proceeding, list what you think are the criteria for establishing the reliability of a website.

Reliability criteriaEdit

We think that the following three points are very important:

  • the expertise and reputation of those connected with the website
  • evidence of lack of bias
  • evidence of equal emphasis towards all aspects of the search topic

Expertise and reputationEdit

If you can see that the website is supported by a reputable organisation or contributed to by a person with known expertise then it is reasonable to accept the website as being reliable. Examples would be where a website giving medical advice was run by a government department or a well respected charity e.g. NHS direct at or Cancer Research UK at

Another more trivial example is that you would expect to find reliable recipes at Delia Smith’s website

Lack of biasEdit

Individuals can be biased in their opinions. Even well known experts may represent only one aspect of a topic.

Many websites by their very nature present information from only one viewpoint and are thus biased. While such information need not necessarily be excluded from the results presented to the client, you must indicate any identified bias and, if possible, provide information from other sources which present opposing points of view. This is particularly important when the client is seeking information on potentially contentious matters such as politics, religion, race or issues related to pressure groups.


As an exercise in looking for bias in websites, search for a pair of websites giving opposing points of view on the following topics.

  • keeping a monkey as a house pet
  • the need for the UK Monarchy
  • the greenness of nuclear fuel
  • the usefulness of homeopathy

Opposing viewsEdit

The following example sites were available at the time of the latest review of this section.

Although the exercise and the results may seem a little trivial, it is useful. The problem when you are faced with queries about these sort of contentious issues is that you will initially retrieve a site as a result of your information search which gives only one side of the case. You must then search for the opposite, just as you have done here.

Equal emphasisEdit

Emphasis differs from bias in that it is omission of information rather than deliberate over-statement of one point of view. For example, US sites may devote little space to British developments. Another pertinent example in UK public libraries is that sites for UK government departments may include information only for England on devolved issues.

You should be aware that emphasis can be more difficult to detect than bias. A solution is to apply the technique of cross checking with other sites on the same topic.


Look at the government website for the Department for Education . Education is a devolved responsibility and thus varies considerably between the four UK nations. Much of the information on the DfES website applies only to England and sometimes Wales.

Compare the information about literacy strategy in schools with that given on:


When you are looking for factual information you can usually assume that a reliable site based on the points above will attempt to provide correct data. However, mistakes can be made and you should cross check data using more than one reliable site wherever possible.


In using the Internet you often come across websites which are seriously out of date. In fact some of them are actually abandoned and will never be updated again. When you use websites in your information searching, you must make sure that the information is current. Of course with a reference book you can look at the publication date. However for websites it is not just so easy.

  Before proceeding, list some points you could look for on a website to establish its currency.

Establishing currencyEdit

We can think of a few possible ways of establishing the currency of a website. Obviously they depend on finding date information. This can be explicit:

  • You can check the “Last revised” date on a website. This is usually found on the first screen. Note that this may only indicate the last time a change was made to a particular part of the website and that it does not imply that all the content was updated on that date.
  • You can look to see how recent are the publication dates of the documents referred to on the site
  • You can look out for dates quoted within text and make an estimate of currency
  • You might find a “Forthcoming events” list where all dates should be in the future, or in the very recent past.

In the absence of any explicit date information you may need to look at Indirect methods of establishing currency

Indirect methods of establishing currencyEdit

If there are no actual dates mentioned, you will need to look for more subtle indications that the site is regularly updated.

  • You can look for regulations or laws mentioned in the site and find their dates of introduction.
  • You can look for the names of institutions or Government departments. These do change name and can be used to give a date range.
  • You can look for the names of personalities involved in the topic which can show currency.
  • Finally you can simply look for reference to recent news items which will date the site’s information.


Look at This is a reputable site and it clearly states whether the site has been recently updated.

Measuring the success of a searchEdit

At the start of the enquiry process, during the reference interview you should have determined clearly the client’s requirements. At the end of the enquiry process you must review the results of the search against these requirements in order to check that the search has been fully successful.

In some cases you may not be able to fully satisfy the client’s requirements. If this happens, the reasons for this must be explained to the client e.g.: information does not exist in the format specified. You should propose some alternatives if these are possible.

There are three main criteria, sufficiency, format and language.


Is there enough information or too much? If it is a straightforward fact being sought then you should have no difficulty here. However for a more complex search you must make sure that you have not overdone the amount of data retrieved to prevent swamping the client and if necessary trim it a bit. Conversely you must check that you have supplied enough information. If the client suggests that more would be appreciated, you can indicate tactfully that you have provided what was asked for but offer to search further if required.


Make sure that the client’s requests for particular formats, such as text, print-out, e-mailed results, audio or video have been met with.


You should make sure that the client’s requests for information in a particular language have been followed.

Structuring and saving of search resultsEdit

The raw data should be presented in a structured way which facilitates understanding by the client. In particular, it is important for the client to be informed of the source(s) of the information found.

For simple searches, the result is likely just to be a short statement of fact. Here all that is required is that the information is presented clearly and unambiguously. However simple the information, we do recommended that it is given to the client in writing and that you keep a copy. That way there can be no argument later about the results. And having a written record means that the client does not have to depend on their memory to recall the information.

For searches which result in a considerable amount of information, you should present the results in some sort of logical order. Different orders suit different types of enquiry.

Ordering resultsEdit

You might adopt one or a combination of:

  • Following the progress of the search – “First I looked at the Food Standards Agency site and this told me….., then I moved on to the Association of Farmers Markets where I found…. etc.
  • Geographical order – grouping information from a country together
  • Chronological order – to show how a topic developed
  • Alphabetical order – if the result of the search is a list of references
  • By point of view – information on one side of the argument, then the opposing side.

These are only some possibilities and you should not feel compelled to choose one of these. The important thing is that your structure for presenting the information suits the topic and is helpful to the client.

Bibliographic referencesEdit

If the results of your search include bibliographic references, these should be quoted in a consistent and accepted style. You can find advice on this on the websites of most universities. A good example is Anglia Ruskin University or you could try the University of Warwick at

It is important to realise that your search and its results represent useful work, which does not simply end when the results are handed over to the client. We can think of two straightforward cases where reference will be made to your work in the future.

  Before proceeding write down two possible reasons for archiving searches for future use.

Archiving searchesEdit

Ignoring the possibility that the first client loses the data and wants another copy of it (this can happen!), the most likely scenario is that another client comes into the library and asks the very same query. Here, if you have stored the enquiry information properly, you can simply go to the search and produce a copy of the results.

In this case, the search results should be archived in such a way that the search can be retrieved by appropriate key terms. These will be subject key words.

Ideally the library should have a formal system for recording the results of frequently asked questions. You should be aware if your library service does this and, if so, make sure that you know how to add your information search results to this.

Frequently asked questionsEdit

One good example of a library database of frequently asked questions is Edinburgh University’s “Previously AnsweRed Questions – PARQs”.


Examine Edinburgh University’s “Previously AnsweRed Questions – PARQs” site on and find the answer to the question “How much did the Forth Bridge cost?”

We think you will agree that this facility is very easy to use. Note how, in addition to answering the questions, the site points the enquirer to further sources of information by means of hyperlinks.

If your library service does not have a formal service-wide system like this, you should consider setting up a simple version for yourself and colleagues at your service point. This is relatively simple to do using a database package available in your library.

Updating dataEdit

Another situation where you may wish to revisit your search is where the same client reappears and wants you to repeat the enquiry at a later point in order to update the data or include new developments which have taken place since the original search was undertaken.

In this case it is important to save not just the search results but also the search strategy. You will need to repeat the strategy in order to update the information found the first time.

You may find that certain enquiries have a habit of repeating at the same time each year. An example would be where pupils always undertake a school project on a particular topic at the beginning of each academic year. You know that every September a group of 12 year olds will descend on your library desperately seeking information on young people and drugs in the locality. In this case, you can even prepare yourself in advance by repeating your search before the question is posed, so that you are prepared to assist the young people with their information needs.

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