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NDL301: Information Fluency: Web

internet history timeline

Using the Web for Research

The Web is great for some kinds of research – and not very useful for others. If you are looking for scholarly articles, you’ll find many of them are not free online. If you are looking for news stories, you may need to one of the library’s databases because many news sites limit access to subscribers. If you’re looking for fairly recent government information (which is in the public domain) it’s terrific. It’s also getting quite useful for collections of primary sources that are out of copyright and datasets created by scholars and scientists. Many organizations provide good (if one-sided) information about issues. And of course it’s a good way to put your finger on the pulse of popular culture.

Technology that makes the Web more interactive – a place where content can be shared and changed spontaneously – was dubbed Web 2.0 when it was new. It raises a lot of questions about authorship, stability of information, and copyright – which some find troubling and others applaud. Social sites have enhanced the interactivity of the Web while, in the background, gathering massive amounts of personal data.

Google is currently the leading search engine, though there are others (including one that doesn’t collect information about your searches to build an advertising empire).  Try Google’s advanced search to hone your search by limiting it to particular domains, recently updated pages, and the like. There are also these specialized Google searches:

Note that there are some nifty ways to refine a search if you poke around. In the basic Google search, you can limit by date.

When using the Image search, you can refine your list of results to images that are licensed for reuse by clicking on Search tools – Image rights.


In this video a sociologist looks at the rise of the social web. It's dated - without any concept of how powerful Facebook would become as a social network.
This video (also several years old) explores ways the social web has become a "personalized" echo chamber.

more useful Google hacks

In addition to limiting a search by date, use these tricks.

  • You can limit a search by domain: For example, to limit a search to government sites add to your search.
  • To exclude a word from a search, put a minus sign in front of it: virus -computer
  • If you aren’t sure of a word within a phrase, put a * in its place: where there is no * the people perish
  • You can limit a search to kind of file by adding filetype:pdf (or pptx or  xls or docx or . . .)
  • If you want to search for information about a site without all of your results from the site, you can exclude it from your search: breitbart


planning a search

  • Think about what you need and which key words might describe it (think small!)
  • Think about what organizations or government entities might provide information on your topic and search their sites.
  • Use what you find to refine your search (such as the name of an organization, a government agency, words you hadn’t thought of when you started out).

Check the URL for clues

  • edu = higher education (usually in the US)
  • gov = government
  • k12 = primary or secondary school
  • com = company (but other kinds of sites, too)
  • org = organization (not necessarily a recognized tax-exempt organization)
  • net = network
  • country abbreviations: ca (Canada); au (Australia); uk (United Kingdom); these can be misleading because you can register a domain in a country other than your own.

be prepared to . . .

  • shorten a URL to get to a root page by deleting everything after the first / – this can help you find out who’s behind a page.
  • follow links to find out about the page’s author or sponsoring agency

Defending Your Privacy Online

keeping private

Duck Duck Go is a search engine that doesn’t track your searches.

StartPage is a Dutch search engine that uses Google but doesn’t track your search history.

Privacy Badger is a browser extension that blocks non-consensual third party trackers. Sometimes you have to turn it off to load a page, but that’s super-easy.

uBlock Origin is an open source browser extension for Chrome and Firefox that blocks ads and trackers.

HTTPS Everywhere helps encrypt sites that have encryption available but not fully implemented. Encryption keeps mischief-makers from intercepting web traffic and routing you to places you don’t want to go or injecting malware.

Tor is a project to develop privacy tools online, including a browser and a complete operating system you can run on a flash drive. It works by routing your traffic through multiple servers, making it a distributed anonymous network.

Tunnel Bear is a VPN (virtual private network) application for computers and phones. It lets you conceal your IP address and location by routing your traffic through servers in another country.

More tools for surveillance self-defense.

digital tools for making your own stuff

ESRI Story Map - create a map and illustrate it with photos to tell a story.

Thinglink - annotate images and videos. (A commercial product with a free test version; I haven't tried this.)

Timeline.js - simple tool that uses a Google spreadsheet to create visually rich timelines. See an example.

More digital tools to make neat things sorted by purpose

ideas for blog posts

Whether we have a joint website or individual ones, you'll need to compose some content, and for this course that means writing some blog posts. Your posts should relate to the material we discuss in class and/or your research and can be whatever length you like, but will probably come in at 250-500 words. You can illustrate them by including pictures or videos. If you use pictures that aren't yours, seek ones that are licensed for reuse and include a credit and link to the source.

Here are some ideas. 

  • Write a response to something we read for class. (This would be good preparation for class discussion.)
  • Write about a news story or something you've read or discussed in another course that has an information angle
  • Brainstorm about a topic for your literature review.
  • Write about something that has frustrated you when doing research.
  • Write about one of the issues that comes up in class: privacy, censorship, open access to research, how algorithms are being used in ways that reproduce bias . . .
  • Write about some research you've done in the past.
  • Write about research you would like to do some day.
  • Write about something that you've learned in class that surprised you.

Try It Out

sites to explore

Blogs and Sites by Academics

The primary ways that academics and scientists communicate their findings is through journal articles, books, conference papers, and so forth – formal reports intended for other scholars that (ideally) extend what we know about the world. But sometimes academics talk more informally to each other and sometimes they communicate to people who aren’t specialists through articles in the popular press, opinion pieces, or using social media. Here are a few examples of these less formal kinds of writing.

  • Apophenia - danah boyd's blog/website about technology and society
  • Cocktail Party Physics - news roundup for all things physics
  • The Conversation - scholarly research for a general audience using "academic rigor, journalistic flair"
  • Crooked Timber – a group blog about economics, philosophy, politics and other stuff
  • Eidolon - an online magazine/blog for Classics topics.
  • Food Politics – a blog by Marion Nestle who follows public policy and law related to food.
  • LSE Impact Blog – from the London School of Economics and Political Science
  • The Message – this is a little hard to describe. Mostly about the intersection of technology and society
  • Pacific Standard - a magazine that makes academic research accessible
  • Savage Minds – a group blog by anthropologists
  • Skulls in the Stars - a blog from a physicist at UNC Charlotte who specializes in optics and pop culture
  • Tressie McMillan Cottom - website of a sociologist/public intellectual

In addition to blogs, here are a couple of publications that aim to make academic research accessible to the public.

The Conversation is a publication started in Australia that seeks to provide the public with information from academics who can speak to current events. It’s basically a news outlet that uses university faculty as its journalists.

Pacific Standard is a magazine that is run by a non-profit organization that seeks to bring behavioral and social science research to a general audience.

Digital Archives

American Rhetoric – text, audio, and video (when available) of famous speeches
Digital Public Library of America – collects digital material from around the country and encourages reuse.
Eurodocs – European primary documents
Hathi Trust – a joint project of research libraries for searching full text of books and developing new tools
Library of Congress Digital Collections
Making of America a full-text digital collection of thousands of 19th century books and journals
New York Public Library Digital Collections
Online Books Page a collection of online books from various sites

Online news sources

Google News – an automated news aggregator, interesting for world reactions and breaking news; you can switch countries to see what's up there.
Internet Archive TV News - searchable newscasts from 2007 to present. Pretty amazing.
Today’s Front Pages from the Newseum.
Newsmap – turns Google News into a visual map of stories and their influence by country.
Chronicling America – digitized historical newspapers from around the US between 1936 and 1922. For example, you can read issues of The Progress published on the White Earth reservation from 1886-1889.
NewsDiffs - tracks changes made to online news reports from a number of news organizations

Sources for Images 

Flickr a social networking site for photos. To find photos licensed for reuse, narrow a search by clicking on the drop down "any license" link and choose "creative commons."
Flickr Commons a collection of photos from cultural institutions that have no known copyright restrictions.
MorgueFile – a collection of royalty-free photos you can reuse
Wikimedia Commons – repository of millions of images and videos either in the public domain or licensed for reuse.
WorldImages – a collection of 70,000 art, architecture, and historical images that can be used for educational purposes

NOTE: when building a website, you should use images that are licensed for reuse, are in the public domain, or are photos you took yourself. It's good practice to indicate the source of images and to avoid reusing copyrighted images.

visualization of data

Gapminder – a Swedish nonprofit effort to visualize time series and national data to promote global sustainability. 
Tableau – a program you can download to create visualizations – assembly required. Check out the Gallery.
Wordle – a simple tool for creating word clouds that show the relative frequency of words. This example highlights words used most frequently in the Bill of Rights.


Note: visualizing data can also distort its meaning. See the Gallery of Data Visualization for some best and worst examples – including “Evil Pies

Lost and Found

The Internet Archive – “offering permanent access for researchers, historians, and scholars to historical collections that exist in digital format;” of particular interest is the Wayback Machine.

keeping up

RSS (“Really Simple Syndication”) is a means of “feeding” you news from Websites as they are updated. You can create a personal collection of feeds using an aggregator such as Feedly.

keeping track, marking up

Zotero is great for storing references to books, articles, and webpages. In addition to Zotero, social bookmarking tools such as DiigoStumbleupon, and Pinboard (subscription required) allow you to keep a set of personal bookmarks that is accessible from any Internet-connected computer. They also aggregate people’s choices so that you can find sites others have bookmarked. Diigo has an annotation feature for websites. Hypothesis is a nifty tool for annotating websites. To see an example, sociologist Tressie McMillan Cottom used Hypothesis to annotate Michelle Obama's speech at the Democratic National Convention.

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