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This chapter is from the book

This chapter is from the book

Searching for Biographical Information for a Term Paper

Biographical information is tricky. On one hand you want enough data that you can learn about the person for your term paper. On the other hand, you want credible data in limited, usable qualities.

The Principle of Onions will apply a little differently here. Instead of trying to use very specific query words, you'll try to use special syntaxes so you're narrowing your query down to credible data.

Full-Text Engines

Let's search for Sally Ride, first woman in space. "Sally Ride" biography is actually a pretty narrow query, but you can narrow the search even more by excluding .com sites:

"Sally Ride" biography -site:com

When you do that you'll get a lot of Sally Ride material, and a lot of it is more oriented toward credible sources (NASA, ThinkQuest, etc.). And you're not finding ads for Sally Ride memorial plates or whatever.

The more famous the person is, the more you may find yourself having to get narrow (perhaps this is the Principle of Famous Onions). For example, if you search for George Washington:

"George Washington" biography -site:com

you will still get over 60,000 results. Relevant ones will pop right up, but you may decide that you want more detailed information. In that case, you may want to add a few more words that reflect what you're looking for:

"George Washington" president "cherry tree" -site:com

While these query words don't narrow your search in an appreciable way—they're too general—they will bring a different set of search results to the top. You can rotate the query words, bringing in different keywords that coincide with popular ideas about George Washington's life, and see how the results change.

Searchable Subject Indexes

When you're searching for a very famous person, searching for them in a searchable subject index is absolutely the way to go. In this case you don't need to make much of an onion at all. Just search for the name and the word "biography":

"George Washington" biography

You'll see that George Washington has his own category with all the information you could use.

Sometimes it's hard to get the idea that you should immediately narrow down your query as much as possible in the hope of getting good results. You might be worried that you won't find all the information you're looking for. And you might not want to spend a lot of time trying to map out the perfect query.

Trust me, it will save you time in the end. The time you spend now to specify a narrow query will limit the amount of time you'll have to spend slogging through result pages. Furthermore, the Web is only going to get bigger. The habits you learn now to narrow down your search results are going to help you when you have to worry about slogging through twenty billion Web pages instead of only four billion.

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