August 02, 2012
(+++) INFORMATION, PLEASE
How to Find Out Anything: From Extreme Google Searches to Scouring Government Documents, a Guide to Uncovering Anything About Everyone and Everything. By Don MacLeod. Prentice Hall. $20.
This is essentially a list of information resources with a little bit of copy explaining how to use them. Nothing wrong with that: it has long been a cliché that we live in the Information Age, and in fact information seems to come in an increasing flood day after day, as if we know a smaller and smaller percentage of what there is to know every time we wake up in the morning.
Law librarian Don MacLeod has gathered a series of information sources over the past 20 years – two decades in which the nature of searching for data has changed dramatically – and offers lists of them at the end of each chapter: “Sites and Sources Mentioned in this Chapter.” These lists are the heart of the book and the main reason to buy it – they are, collectively, a quick guide to methods of searching at specialized libraries worldwide, in records of professional associations, in filings made by corporations, and in government documents. The lists are accompanied by discussions of ways to get more from Google by using its Advanced Search features, to track down individual people or types of people (doctors in an area where you are planning to move, for example), and to understand and make use of reference materials.
The book’s text, though, is less valuable than its lists. MacLeod starts with some interesting questions: “How much money does my boss make? Where is my great-grandmother buried? Who [sic] did my college girlfriend marry?” And he strikes an appropriately explanatory note about the importance of careful searches: “Serious research is information gathering that is complex, demanding, and undertaken for a more critical purpose than finding out how tall your favorite celebrity is. For instance, you may be conducting research to flesh out a business proposal… Or you might be a graduate student writing a paper on an emerging scientific subject… Complex research requires skill, imagination, and creativity.” All this is true, but How to Find Out Anything is not itself very imaginatively written. It is basically a recitation of techniques, many of them repeated word for word in larger type elsewhere on the same page – a design element of the book that quickly becomes tiresome: being told once that “the date filter is a godsend for the researcher who needs to look for time-sensitive information” is quite enough; being told twice, once in larger letters, is overkill.
This is not to say that MacLeod’s explanations aren’t useful – they are. So are his discussions of some information sources with which readers are unlikely to be familiar: “If you need to contact a company that makes some quotidian products like zippers, then ThomasNet is where you’ll find the info. This unprepossessing site holds a masterfully designed database of company information… Even when you don’t have [a] specific question in mind, it’s fun to browse the site just to see the range of very weird objects for sale.” On the other hand, MacLeod’s treatment of more-familiar data sources is not particularly revelatory: “The advent of social networking tools has introduced an entirely new way of locating individuals.” “If your local [library] branch doesn’t keep a particular book in its collection, you can request it from another library that does.” MacLeod’s own creativity comes through better in sections such as the one about tracking down an organization’s E-mail convention, then sending messages to various possible addresses: email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com. “If you’re wrong, the email bounces back,” writes MacLeod. “If not, the address is probably a valid one.”
MacLeod’s brief discussions of how to use research sources will not turn readers into expert investigators overnight. But at a time when “to Google” is a well-known verb, the basics of information search will already be familiar to readers of How to Find Out Anything. Adding them to the end-of-chapter lists of familiar and less-familiar data and search sites will give readers a good foundation for finding a great deal of information on a great many subjects, if perhaps not quite, as the book’s lengthy subtitle claims, “anything” about “everything.”