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Using the World Wide Web for Research in American Studies
The World Wide Web contains a wealth of resources on all aspects of American Studies. As more and more schools hook up to the Internet, students are beginning to realise its value, but how do you find your way through the mass of material and separate the good from the worthless.

Here, Pamela Wonsek, a librarian at Hunter College, City University of New York, sets out some useful strategies for searching the Web and evaluating materials. She also includes a selection of useful Web addresses to get you started.


Boolean Searching Search Engines and Directories Search Tips
Resources in American Studies Useful sites in American Studies Electronic Texts and Journals Commercial Full-Text Delivery Systems
Searching Library Catalogues over the Web Evaluation of Information Citing Sources References and Suggested Readings




The World Wide Web, developed as a graphical interface for the internet, is an extraordinary research tool with its document delivery system and hypertext linkages that bring text, images, audio, and video to the desk top. Each day, more and more libraries and organizations are digitizing portions of their collections and are adding the full-text of literary works, diaries, memoirs, and statistical data to the Web. As a result, the Web is increasingly valuable to researchers all over the world. In American Studies, where interests range from the study and teaching of the English language, to Frederick Douglass' autobiography, to Marilyn Monroe as myth and legend, to images of factory life at the turn of the century, to the X-Files' phenomenon, to the press and the First Amendment, to socio-economic comparisons of American cities, etc., the Web is almost indispensable.

This article is an introduction to research in American Studies on the Web, focusing on research strategy and methodology, and the evaluation of information that is found on the Web. Although the Web is fundamentally unstable tomorrow), URL addresses (and links in the online edition) have (sites are here today and gone been included to some useful (and hopefully, stable) Web sites in American Studies. All links and addresses were active on 5 April 1997.

The Web is often referred to as a 'virtual library.' There are problems with this analogy, however. Although libraries and the Web both contain texts, audio and visual resources, as well as statistical information, the approach to the selection, organization and retrieval of information is quite different. For Clifford Lynch, a librarian and computer scientist, the internet is not 'the world's library for the digital age...' and it is not 'designed to support the organized publication and retrieval of information, as libraries are.' Rather, the internet is 'a chaotic repository for the collective output of the world's digital 'printing presses'' (Lynch, 1997: 52. Available: 5 April 1997. Understanding the search engines that are presently available and their underlying logic systems are the keys to getting started.

Boolean Searching

What is Boolean searching? The searching of computerized data bases that is based upon Boolean logic allows the use of terms, such as AND, OR or NOT (called operators or connectors), to narrow, broaden or refine a search. Boolean searching enables researchers to cut through millions of Web documents and identify those that most clearly match their topic.

The AND operator or connector narrows a search by limiting the results to those items that include two or more terms.

ebonics AND "Jesse Jackson" AND

Faulkner AND "sound and the fury"

"beat generation" AND kerouac

homeless AND children


Three andsThe search for homeless AND children retrieves those items that discuss both the homeless and children. Additional terms may be included into the search string to further limit or tailor the results: homeless AND children AND statistics.

The OR operator or connector broadens a search by retrieving synonyms, variant spellings or other terms that are related to a topic. The search will find those works that include at least one term even when the other term(s) is not present.

ORhoboes OR vagrants

"hate groups" OR skinheads OR "skin heads"

"affirmative action" OR "proposition 209"

songs OR music OR narratives

Boolean searchA search for songs OR music OR narratives will create a set of 'hits' that includes all three terms. This search can be combined with the AND connector to refine the search and retrieve only those items that also include the term slaves: slaves AND (songs OR music OR narratives).

Although the use of parentheses ( ), called nesting, is not required by all Web search engines in order to dictate the order of operation, combining both AND and OR operators in the same search without using parentheses ( ) can lead to unexpected and unwanted results. On the other hand, nesting terms that should be added together first within parentheses ( ) assures the creation of a set that will then be narrowed by the AND operator.

Boolean searchThe NOT operator or connector excludes a term from the search.

media NOT television

(drugs OR marijuana) AND NOT prescription

Lincoln NOT Nebraska

"vietnam war" NOT "viet cong"

Boolean searchThe NOT connector can be combined with other operators to tailor a search. The following search will retrieve letters, correspondence or memoirs related to the Vietnam War but will exclude those of the Viet Cong: "vietnam war" AND (letters OR correspondence OR memoirs) NOT "viet cong"

NOTE: The NOTconnector is extremely powerful and should be used with caution since it can exclude more than expected or desired. The above search, for example, would exclude all references to the Viet Cong in fields that were searched, thereby excluding material that could be useful.


Search Engines and Directories

Effective searching of the Web makes use of two different types of tools: search engines that seek out, index and retrieve information within Web sites, and directories that analyze and organize Web sites by their content or subject. With the proliferation of Web sites and new developments in search engine technology, using a single search engine often is not enough. The following section discusses briefly some of the popular search engines available today. For fuller comparisons of these engines and their features, try these Web sites:

Sullivan, Danny. A Webmaster's Guide to Search Engines. 1997. (Available: 5 April 1997.

Hamline University Libraries. Tips on Popular Search Engines. 1997. (Available: 5 April 1997.

Keep in mind the fact that search engines are changing and improving constantly. While the following may be true today, new features will be added tomorrow. The help screens of the search engines themselves are the best place to learn about current developments.
The most established subject directory is Yahoo! ( Yahoo! classifies Web sites by category. Although a search in Yahoo! might not retrieve the largest number of results, the significance of the sites is often quite high. For example, a very simple Yahoo! search for homeless quickly leads to the National Coalition for the Homeless' Home Page with links to a series of Fact Sheets including 'How Many People Experience Homelessness?' Simple searches in Yahoo! are a good way to begin research on a topic. Yahoo! is not case sensitive; it searches portions of words (homeless also retrieves homelessness); it matches at least one of the words in a search string and returns a list of categories as well as Web sites. The ease of repeating the search in a larger Web environment by clicking on one of the search engines at the bottom of the search results' page enhances the flexibility of Yahoo!.

Excite ( allows both Boolean searching and concept searching, which identifies documents that are related to a topic even if those documents do not include the actual search term(s). Search results are confidence ranked and allow a searcher to find sites that are more closely related to a topic by clicking on the 'More Like This' link next to a particularly relevant site.

Infoseek allows phrase searching through quotes or by hyphenating the phrase. Infoseek does not use Boolean operators: a required word or phrase must be preceded by a plus sign (+) and a prohibited word or phrase by a minus sign (-) -- for example: "vietnam war" +letters. Terms or phrases that are found in the title, used frequently or near the beginning of the document are ranked higher in the search results. Infoseek includes links to 'Related Topics,' which provides some subject organization to Web sites. Infoseek also supports restricting searches to links, sites, titles or URLs by using Infoseek field syntax (title:"vietnam war").

Lycos ( is one of the largest search engines but, unfortunately, it does not support Boolean searching. The default search assumes OR between terms, although a minus (-) symbol can be used to exclude a term. Lycos also enables a searcher to use the dollar sign ($) as a truncation symbol and the period (.) to search for an exact match. Specialized searches can be performed by clicking on 'Pictures' to retrieve GIF, JPG, and MOV, etc. files; 'Sound' retrieves WAV, SND, RA, and AU, etc. files; and 'Related Sites' displays results from its 'Search by Subject' Internet Directory. Pictures related to the Civil Rights Movement, for example, can be retrieved by searching for civil rights in the 'Pictures' file. Sites with both terms (civil and rights) receive a higher ranking, and results can be limited further by clicking on 'Match all words.'

AltaVista ( is considered by many to be the premier search engine because of its extensive coverage of the Web, including Usenet news groups. Its all-inclusive nature, however, produces a large number of low-quality or irrelevant hits as well. The 'Advanced Search' feature allows a full range of Boolean searching options, including the proximity operator, NEAR, which searches for one term within ten words of another term. An interesting feature of AltaVista is its link to 'Live Topics,' a screen of synonyms and terms related to a topic that can be added to or removed from a search by clicking on the box next to the term: a search for "beat generation," followed by a link to 'Live Topics,' provides a list of suggested terms, performers and artists (Kerouac, Burroughs, Ginsberg, beatniks, hippies, bohemia, etc.) that are connected to the beat generation. AltaVista also supports filename.filetype searching, which is particularly useful in

retrieving images and sound files: the simple searches "martin luther" +king.jpg retrieves images and "martin luther" +king.wav retrieves sound files of Martin Luther King.

SavvySearch ( is just one of the many search systems designed to search a number of selected search engines simultaneously. Duplicate sites are weeded from the display of results and the engines are rated in terms of their anticipated usefulness. The disadvantage of such a system includes the amount of time a search may take as well as the fact that the common interface prevents the use of customized features of individual search engines.

Deja News ( searches current and archive files of news groups for topics and discussion threads.

All search engines have unique features. When you find one that you enjoy using, learn more about the advanced search features that the search engine provides.


Search Tips

Many Web search engines use Boolean logic, although some use symbols such as +, - or !, instead of the operators or NOT; some require the syntax AND NOT or BUT NOT instead of NOT; and some AND, OR search engines produce 'fuzzy matches,' which results in the ranking of sites in terms of confidence and the inclusion of sites that do not match all search terms.

When using Boolean operators, type them in CAPS (AND, OR, NOT). Since many search engines are not case sensitive, the CAPS identify these words as operators rather than search terms or unsearchable 'noise terms.'

When using a phrase, enclose it within double quotation marks ("") because most engines search each word individually and may default to an OR connector, retrieving an enormous number of unrelated documents.

Place the most significant term first in the search string. Because of the weight that some search engines place on the first term or phrase, results can be very different. In AltaVista, for example, the search NRA +"gun control" retrieves 2,000 hits with the term NRA featured prominently and early in the entries; but, "gun control" +NRA retrieves only 300 hits with a different selection of entries at the top of the list. When in doubt, do the search both ways.

Too many hits? Try limiting the search by using AND or NOT connectors as appropriate.

Too few hits? Try removing some search terms or limiting operators, and introduce spelling variations, synonyms or related terms connected by OR in the search.

All search engines operate differently and retrieve different results. Try the search across a few search engines to expand results.

Avoid common or generic terms. The more precise and exact you are with your search terms, the more satisfying your results will be -- especially with an all-inclusive search engine like AltaVista.

Before searching, spend some time off-line deciding what results you want and plan your search strategy accordingly. And then, be prepared to be creative!


Resources in American Studies

Identifying quality and comprehensive internet sites is made considerably easier by subject specialists who are creating subject internet guides. These guides and their links are often useful and efficient starting points in a research plan. Following are some recommended sites that are worth reviewing to gain an idea of the scope of source material, Usenet news groups and listservs that are available on the internet to support American Studies.

American Studies Association Crossroads Project: Subject Maps in American Studies Fields ( includes useful links to sites in several areas of American Studies such as African American studies, regional studies, history, humanities, literature, and media studies. Some areas are still under development, including popular culture, journalism and political science.

The Yellow Pages ( from the University of Virginia, complements the Crossroads Project, especially in popular culture and film, and it includes links to the American Film Institute and the Library of Congress' Early Motion Pictures, 1897-1916.

Early American Studies Links ( is a highly eclectic and personal collection of links divided into four categories: History and Documents, Societies and Indices, General American Lit, and American Authors, with descriptive annotations of the contents of the Web sites.

Yahoo American Studies Web Site ( includes over 350 links to American studies sites and related information servers.

American and International Studies: Internet Resources ( is one of a series of brief internet guides published in C&RL News. This guide is divided into sections on listservs and news groups, electronic journals, telnet, FTP and gopher resources, as well as suggested WWW resources.

United States Information Agency: The Study of the United States links to scholarly resources in American studies, American history, U.S. politics and government, American literature, and U.S. society and culture.

With the explosion of information on the Web, retrieval has become more complicated, but librarians and information specialists are organizing and identifying sites that are particularly content-rich. Although the coverage of these 'value-added' sites is broader than just American Studies, browsing them and using them to find quality internet sites is highly recommended:

The Argus Clearinghouse ( is a central access point for topical guides that identify, describe and evaluate internet-based information resources. Among the broad range of subjects that are treated are: the 1960s, counterculture, abortion debate, citizens' rights, drunk driving, ethnic studies, feminism, history and electronic texts, Kennedy assassination and conspiracy theory, Native Americans, media history, hate groups and extremists, Korean War, and Vietnam War. Each guide is dated and rated for description, content, design, organization and meta-information.

BUBL ( offers value-added access to reliable, high-quality and international online resources of academic, research and professional significance to the UK Higher Education community; its subject-tree arrangement of links to sites can be browsed by subject, keyword or Dewey classification number.

A selection of particularly useful sites in American Studies

White House Virtual Library ( provides access to publicly-released documents and radio addresses since the beginning of the Clinton administration. There are also links to some historic documents. The search feature of the site enables the researcher to zero in on specific topics or terminology: for example, a search for 'indispensable nation' will identify those speeches in which Bill Clinton and Al Gore used the phrase; then, by using the FIND feature of the Web browser, the phrase can be located within the individual speeches, radio addresses, etc.

Library of Congress ( links to the extraordinary and searchable American Memory collection of primary source materials, documents, photographs, and sound recordings related to American culture and history, and THOMAS: Legislative Information, which provides searching of the full-text of current bills under consideration in the U.S. Congress.

Supreme Court Decisions in full-text are available at several sites. FLITE ( is a comprehensive database containing historic decisions from 1937 through 1975; Cornell University's Legal Information Institute ( provides coverage since 1990; and Findlaw ( is a comprehensive site without the post-1975 gap.

U.S. Census Bureau ( provides access to census data reports, along with a search feature that identifies reports and statistics by subject. There are links to other government agencies that gather statistics and a link to experts at the Bureau, searchable by subject.


Electronic Texts and Journals

Individual texts can be located on the Web by author, title or combination searches: for example, "frederick douglass" +narrative links to Web and gopher sites at Mississippi State University for Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. Adding terms such as diary, correspondence, letters, etc. to subject searches can identify other primary source material: "vietnam war" AND (correspondence OR letters OR memoirs); slaves AND (narratives OR songs); antebellum AND texts; etc.

TIP: Once you retrieve a document, use the FIND feature on your Web browser to zero in on the location and occurrence of specific words or phrases.

The Web provides access to thousands of texts with historical, literary, political, or social significance. They can be located through the links found at many of the Web sites listed above as well as at the following sites, which represent only a small sample of what is available:

The Making of America Project is a collaborative effort between Cornell University and the University of Michigan, focusing on the antebellum period through reconstruction. The University of Michigan MOA collection ( currently includes an online collection of some 200,000 pages of American publications from 1850 to 1900; by mid-year, the collection will be extended to include approximately 650,000 pages, including several journals. The Cornell University MOA collection ( presently includes some historic magazines, such as Harper's New Monthly Magazine, 1889-1896 and Scientific American, 1846-1850.

Voice of the Shuttle Guide to American Literature: Web Page for Humanities Research (, Italy and Japan do not appear to be revised as often as the main site.

e-journals: WWW Virtual Library Electronic Journals List ( provides searching and links to academic and reviewed journals, email newsletters, magazines, newspapers as well as alternative and political newsletters.


Commercial Full-Text Document Delivery Systems

Although the number of searchable and retrievable texts, documents, images, video and sound files, statistical resources, and journal and newspapers articles continues to increase on the Web, copyright restrictions and intellectual property rights will always limit the amount of material that is freely available. However, many commercial vendors now deliver the full-text of copyrighted materials over the Web by subscription to institutions, and some services also ship documents to individuals via a credit card. Some of the commercial services that deliver documents to individuals can be found at or through these sites:

BUBL ( links to electronic journals and commercial electronic journal services with downloadable texts.

EBSCOdoc ( provides document delivery to individuals through an electronically linked network of worldwide library sources.

UnCover ( is an online article delivery service, a table of contents database, and a keyword index to nearly 17,000 periodicals. Searching the database is

free, and the delivery of documents can be charged to a standard credit card.
Project Muse (, providing worldwide access to the full text of Johns Hopkins Press' 40+ journals in the humanities, social sciences and mathematics, is experimenting with individual as well as institutional subscriptions.


Searching Library Catalogues over the Web

From a single workstation, a researcher can access public, academic and research library catalogues throughout the world. Some of these catalogues are searchable through Web-based interfaces that simplify the mechanics of searching. The point and click functionality of the Web has been incorporated into these catalogues, thus reducing the need to master the idiosyncrasies of many different library search engines. A comprehensive site that links to Web-based catalogues is WebCats: Library Catalogues on the World Wide Web (

Online catalogues are searchable by author, title, subject, and keyword, plus an assortment of catalogue-specific search features. Generally, keyword searching in library catalogues follows Boolean search logic: using the AND operator in the search, Vietnam AND letters, retrieves those records that have both terms. The search, letters AND Vietnam, returns exactly the same results since library catalogues generally do not rank or weigh results based upon the first term in the search. By and large, library catalogues do not perform 'fuzzy matches' in the way that some Web search engines do.

Subject cataloguing, which classifies and groups similar materials together, is a powerful research tool as long as one knows the proper subject heading and syntax of the Library of Congress subject heading. Keyword searching, on the other hand, allows the use of natural language. Thanks to Web-based catalogues, a researcher can maximize the power of subject searching through the ease of keyword searching. For example, to identify print collections of letters and correspondence written by soldiers in the Vietnam War, a 'quick and dirty' keyword search in a Web-based catalogue, Vietnam AND letters, might return only a couple of titles, such as:

1. Dear America: letters home from Vietnam/the New York Viet (1985)

2. Shrapnel in the heart: letters and remembrances from the Vi (1987)

But by clicking on Dear America: letters home from Vietnam, the full bibliographic record for this book is retrieved along with a link to its Library of Congress subject heading: Vietnamese Conflict, 1961-1975 -- Personal narratives, American. Clicking on this subject heading automatically executes the subject search within the catalogue and displays hundreds of references to other narrative sources that were not retrieved through keyword searching -- all without the need to know the restrictive vocabulary (Vietnamese Conflict instead of Vietnam War) or syntax (dates, dashes, subdivisions, etc.) used in the Library of Congress subject heading.

Not all library catalogues are Web-based, but many are also available on the internet through telnet. One Web site that provides links to these catalogues and logon instructions is HYTELNET (

Many library catalogues also provide access to periodical and newspaper indices, abstracts, and full-text services for their primary clientele. These services generally are not available to outside searchers, regardless of Web interfaces.


Evaluation of Information

The criteria that we use to evaluate the information we find in books, journals and newspapers include the credibility and authority of the author, the reputation of the publisher, and the reliability, accuracy and currency of the information. Just as we instinctively evaluate information in print sources, we must hold Web-based information up to even greater critical scrutiny, especially since anyone with a computer and HTML proficiency can become a Web publisher -- the ultimate vanity press.

Through the editing process, print materials undergo scrutiny and evaluation any number of times before publication. Commercial publishers have established reputations, and the credibility that comes with their reputations extend to their publications. We tend to attribute more authority and accuracy to articles published in refereed journals than those that are not refereed because we value the peer review process. Books and journals, purchased by libraries, go through a selection process that is often based upon authoritative reviews. Although some Web sites do receive rigorous review, the Web also contains much that is raw, unedited, spurious, inaccurate, inflammatory, or simply not refereed. 'This problem has intensified as more and more resources are placed and distributed on the Web without editors and fact checkers (the traditional gate-keepers for print publications) monitoring them to assure quality.' (Tate and Alexander, 1996: 49)

So how should we evaluate Web-based information? What questions should we ask? The following provides a starting point:

What is the credibility of the author? Can you determine if s/he is an expert in the field? Is there a link to a Home Page? Is there a feedback function on the page or an email address?

How reliable is the information? Although quantity does not ensure quality, one indicator of reliability might be the number of quality links to the site. Both Infoseek and AltaVista have search features that identify sites that have linked to a particular page. Another indicator might be the site's inclusion in Excite Reviews, Lycos Top 5% Reviewed Sites, WebCrawler Select, or in some of the 'value-added' internet guides such as Argus Clearinghouse or BUBL. Restricting a search to a specific domain (such as gov, org, edu, etc.), as is possible with AltaVista, can help weed out some less-reliable sites. Keep in mind, however, that an edu domain will be just as likely to include information written by an undergraduate student as it will to have information written by a scholar!

How current and/or secure is the information? Using the View function on a Netscape browser, you can sometimes determine and/or verify the date the page was mounted and last revised, and verify encryption information.

What is the value of the information as compared with print sources? Just because the information can be retrieved by computer does not endow it with intrinsic value. Sometimes print is better and faster.
Does the site have a particular bias? Although information coming from the National Rifle Association or the American Civil Liberties Union may be very useful and valuable, it also clearly will have a bias that can be recognized and acknowledged. The bias in other sites may not always be as apparent.
Is there an attempt to sell something?

For additional essays and guidelines on evaluation of Web resources, take a look at the following sites:

Widener University Libraries. Evaluation of Web Resources

Esther Grassian. Thinking Critically about World Wide Web Resources



Citing Sources

The ease of downloading information and the cutting and pasting functions on many computers make it that much more important to cite sources properly in order to protect the intellectual property rights of the author of a Web document, and to enable the next reader to locate the source document. The instability of the Web, as compared to print sources, is problematic for a researcher and, therefore, the full and complete citing of a Web document is absolutely essential.

In general, it is necessary to provide as much information as possible to enable someone to locate the document. This includes the same information as a printed source plus the Protocol (if applicable): Site/Path/File and, finally, the date when the Web document was accessed by the researcher. Recent editions of most, if not all, style guides now provide examples of citation formats for internet and Web-based documents. MLA and APA style manuals for internet resources are also available on the Web through this site:

Li, Xia and Crane, Nancy. Bibliographic Formats for Citing Electronic Information. 1997. Available: 5 April 1997.

Final Tip: As you surf the Web, you will find your own favorite sites to which you will want to return. Serendipitously, you will stumble across an absolute gem of a Web site. Be sure that you either download all of your favorite Web sites onto a disk, or at the very least, write down the full and complete URL. You'll be glad that you did! It's a big Web out there. Enjoy the ride!

References and Suggested Readings

Campbell, D. and Campbell, M. (1995) The Student's Guide to Doing Research on the Internet. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.
Gates, J.K. (1994) Guide to the Use of Libraries and Information Sources. 7th ed. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Harris, C. (1996) An Internet Education: A Guide to Doing Research on the Internet. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing Co.
'The Internet: Fulfilling the Promise [Special Report],' (1997) Scientific American 276 (3): 50-83. (Available: 5 April 1997.
Li, X. and Crane, N. (1996) Electronic Styles: A Handbook for Citing Electronic Information. 2d ed. Medford, NJ: Information Today, Inc. Lynch, C. (1997) 'Searching the Internet,' Scientific American 276 (3): 52-56. (Available: 5 April 1997. Owen, T., Owston, R. and Dickie, C. (1995) The Learning Highway: A Student's Guide to Using the Internet in High School and College. Toronto: Key Porter Books. Perry, L.S. (1996) 'American and International Studies: Internet Resources,' College & Research Libraries News 57 (9): 570-75. (Available: 5 April 1997.
Perry, L.S. (1995) 'Using the Internet for International Research,' American Studies Quarterly 33 (1): 87-99.
Tate, M. and Alexander, J. (1996) 'Teaching Critical Evaluation Skills for World Wide Web Resources,' Computers in Libraries, 16 (10): 49-55.

* * * * *

Pamela Wonsek is Associate Librarian for Public Services at Hunter College, City University of New York and Adjunct Associate Professor in the Communications Department, Hunter College. She is the author of 'College Basketball on Television: A Study of Racism in the Media,' (1992) Media, Culture and Society. She may be contacted with questions or comments at April, 1997.


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