There are two major sources of free information in the United States: the public library and the Internet.
The Public Library
All metropolitan areas in the United States and many smaller towns have public libraries. Public libraries offer
- free computer use
- a reference librarian to help you search
- research tools
- newspapers and magazines
- books, CDs, videos, and DVDs
- classes and lectures.
The public library is free. You can go to any public library and use its services without any charges.
- To find the public library in your area, Google “public library,” plus the name of your city, or look in the local government section of your telephone book under “Library, Public.”
- There is no charge for using the library or any of its services. (There are charges if you don’t return borrowed items when due, or if you lose them.)
- To take books and other items out of the library, you need a library card issued by the library.
Free Computer Use
Almost all public libraries have computers for the public to use. Most have time restrictions —generally one hour—for this use; but if no one is waiting, the librarian in charge may let you continue until someone else needs the machine.
Here you can access this book, research many of the things you need to know, and open and maintain a free e-mail account.
Library computers are often in demand, so it’s best to go during school hours on weekdays, if you can.
If you can’t go at these times, libraries
- are usually open on Saturdays;
- may have evening hours on some days during the week;
- are sometimes open on Sundays, as well.
Any library worker will tell you where the computers are and how to sign up to use them.
If you are not familiar with computers and need help, the library staff will help you.
The Reference Librarian
The reference librarian helps people find the information they need. From local or basic needs, like job openings, to unusual questions, such as the language spoken in a remote part of India, the reference librarian will put you on the track. Reference librarians are usually pleasant and helpful, and they seem to relish hunting for information.
- At neighborhood branches and other small libraries, there is generally only one reference librarian.
- Main libraries in large cities may have several reference librarians in different departments. The main desk will tell you where to find the reference librarian you need.
Libraries also stock traditional research tools, including
These items can be helpful if your access to computers is limited or if you’re just more comfortable with print materials.
- maps and atlases
- specialty encyclopedias, such as reference books that focus on a given subject, like medical terms
Newspapers and Magazines
Libraries subscribe to many newspapers and magazines that you can read on the premises.
- Print media are important even if you have access to television.
- TV favors news that makes good pictures, so important news with little visual appeal may not get attention. While local TV news may highlight a house fire, for instance, the local newspaper may cover a new service or program you could use.
- Print media cover more topics, offering information about marriages and deaths, for example.
- The newspaper also has more local advertising than TV.
- Local supermarket chains advertise weekly specials in the newspaper, for instance; and on weekends, you can find quite a selection of used goods, from furniture to musical instruments, at bargain prices.
- This kind of information is also widely available on the Internet, but often is harder to find.
- Sometimes print format is more useful—for example, if you want to compare local prices.
Books, CDs, Videos, and DVDs
Books, CDs, videos, and DVDs are the mainstay of libraries.
- To take these materials home with you, you will need a library card. With a photo ID, you can usually get a library card immediately; you can then borrow items for a set time, generally two to three weeks.
- Most libraries also let you extend this time by another two weeks if you haven’t finished with the material before the due date.
- Some libraries limit the number of items you can take at one time; others don’t. The librarians will tell you what the limits are.
Libraries are beginning to offer electronic books as well, for those who can use them. If you have a library card, you can get e-books without actually going to the library. However, libraries currently don't have many titles in this category.
With a library card, you have access to a wonderful variety of materials for education and entertainment—at no cost.
- You can use the computerized catalogue system to find out whether the library has a particular item you want, or you can ask the librarian.
- Most libraries also display selections of books they think readers will enjoy.
- You also can ask the librarian for recommendations about whatever topic interests you.
Classes and Lectures
Some public libraries offer free or low-priced classes such as
Many libraries also offer free programs on topics ranging from personal finance to foreign policy.
- computer skills,
- English for speakers of other languages (ESOL),
- general educational development (GED).
The Internet has almost unimaginable power to help or harm you. It’s an indispensable tool, but you should use it with care. The amount of content can be overwhelming, and it’s an inviting hang-out for crooks and con men, as well as quacks—people who advertise skills and cures they cannot really provide.
Since you are reading this book, you already know something about the Internet, so this section has only a quick overview of the basics. It focuses on how to evaluate the information you find online.
You will find suggestions about Web sites focused on specific topics in the sections about each subject throughout this book. Good places to look for jobs are listed in Jobs and Careers, for instance.
The letters URL stand for Uniform Resource Locator, or, in effect, the address of the Web site. For purposes of basic Internet use, what is important in the URL is the domain name, which consists of an individual title and a suffix—the three letters at the end of the address that follow a dot. The three letters tell you something about the site:
- .com means the site is a commercial Web site, there to do business (even though ICSA, a nonprofit educational organization, has a Web site that ends in .com. This example shows only that there are exceptions to almost everything.).
- .net is a variation of .com and means the same.
- .biz is another variation of .com and means the same.
- .org means the site owner is a nonprofit or charitable organization.
- .edu means the site owner is a school, college, or other educational organization.
- .gov means the site belongs to a government agency—federal, state or local.
If you are looking for information about a specific topic, you will probably use a search engine. A search engine is a Web site that collects information and stores it by key words, called search terms.
When you enter a name or topic, the search engine lists all the Web sites in its collection that include your search terms.
Here are some tips for choosing search terms:
- Place quotation marks around two or more words that must appear together. For instance, on one major search engine
- Computer printer generates more than ten million entries.
generates a little less than two million entries.
- The more specific the search term, the more precise the results. As an example, on one search engine
- “Candidates for president” generates 199,000 entries.
- “Candidates for president in 1940” generates two entries.
- Use a plus (+) sign if two or more terms must be included in the results, but do not necessarily have to appear together; for example,
- “Lawyers + Los Angeles” or “sales + Macy’s + Philadelphia”
Google and Yahoo
Two large and useful search engines are Google and Yahoo.
- Both carry paid advertisements (which they call sponsored listings) that are separated from unpaid search results. Sometimes this distinction is important; sometimes it doesn’t matter.
- Both have a band above the search window with a list of options that may speed your search. Google offers options for Images, Maps, and News, among others. Yahoo offers Images, Video, and Local options. Both search engines will show more options if you click on “more.”
- Both sites offer free email services.
The Google and Yahoo Web sites use different procedures, so you will often find information on one that is not listed on the other. Each site also has some useful features not available on the other.
- In addition to the options listed in the bar above the search window, Google offers options to the right of the search window:
provides ways to narrow down your search.
lets you pick a different language, adjust the filter, or change the number of listings on a page.
allows you—sort of—to get results from another language translated into the language of your choice. Use this feature cautiously.
- Yahoo offers a helpful shortcut to comparison shopping. Click on Shopping in the row above the search window, and enter a search term, such as “shoes.” You will get a list of shoes sold on the Internet, with a variety of ways to narrow your search by, for instance, price, color, type, and size.
- Clicking on local above the search window will divide the window into two sections. One section will ask you to enter the business or service you are looking for; the other will ask you for the location.
- If you enter “Shoes” and “Seattle, WA,” You will get a list of places in Seattle that includes shoe stores, shoe repair shops, and, at the end, options for neighborhoods, categories, and even names of specific places.
- A list of special sections in the left-hand column on the Yahoo home page has some helpful offerings.
- Real estate lets you enter the location, type, and size of housing, and the amount you can pay; it then pulls up listings that meet your criteria.
- Autos lets you do a similar search for new or used vehicles.
- Travel lets you compare times and prices of flights, and car rentals; it also offers hotel rooms and vacation planning.
- TV will help you find listings for local programs.
A very popular reference site, Wikipedia is an encyclopaedia project written by volunteers.
- Anyone can post an article on Wikipedia, or edit an existing article by adding information, cross-references, or citations. Writers must cite references for the information they post here.
- Because Wikipedia is so free flowing, articles may contain false information or omit important information. The theory is that, eventually, volunteer editors will correct the article. Information not supported by references may be removed.
- Wikipedia claims that studies have shown it to be broadly as reliable as more conventional encyclopaedias; but it cautions that, at the time you are reading it, a given article may have mistakes.
There are many other search engines.
- Some specialize in topics such as medicine or business.
- Others, like www.shopzilla.com, compare online prices of thousands of items.
- Some, such as www.CNET.com, a computer-oriented site, offer reviews of the items they list.
Some search engine sites are helpful, some are confusing, some are clearly biased one way or another, and some are deceptive or otherwise potentially harmful.
Here are a few tips to help you distinguish what’s useful from what’s questionable and/or dangerous as you search for information on the Internet:
- Compare information from at least two sites. For instance, consider the differences in the following information from different sites:
- “Alternative cancer treatments can easily cure newly diagnosed cancer patients in the vast majority of cases.”
- “Quackwatch has heard from several people who have been defrauded of large sums of money pursuing nonexistent ‘cancer cures’.”
- Web sites that end in .com, .net, or .biz are likely to be selling something. (“Diagnosed with cancer? Check with our oncology specialists online today. There is hope.”) Their information will be focused to promote the product or service they are selling.
- make claims based on personal experience (“Dr. Lorraine Day reversed her advanced cancer by rebuilding her immune system using natural therapies.”);
- claim to have “the best” (“We’ve selected the top 5 sites for cancer cures here.”);
- ask for your personal information (name, address, social security number, etc.) as a condition of entry.
Search engines such as Google and Yahoo will instantly—and randomly—produce thousands of results for searches like “cancer cures,” for example. It’s easy to get lost in a swamp of oddball Web sites if you don’t watch out.
On a sample day, Google provided 139,000 results for the search term “cancer cures.” The top links listed had no connection with respected cancer research organizations. In fact, they included some highly suspect links, such as
- “Harry Hoxsey’s cancer cures and the U.S. government campaign to destroy them,” and
- “Canadian herbal remedies result proven by the Chinese Ministry of Health.”
The first link to a reputable source of information, the American Cancer Society, was tenth on Google’s list.
Yahoo gave 201,000 results overall. It offered options: natural cancer cures, alternative cancer cures, and a variety of specific cancer cures.
Although the American Cancer Society was second on its list, the first entry was a sales site focusing on “nutritional therapy and alternative medicine,” with a plea at the top of its home page to the effect that “I need some sales if I’m going to stay in business….”
One of the most reliable places to look for information about cancer, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Web site, was nowhere near the top of either list. Another well-known, reputable site, WebMD, was similarly obscure.
News, Books, and MagazinesThe Internet also offers a rich supply of news sources. Online news will be more up-to-the-minute than printed news. If you are closely following on ongoing event, like wildfires in California, or you want to know who won an election, Internet news will have the most up-to-date reports. You can also get specialized news, such as stock market developments, overseas publications, or press releases and public documents of governments and businesses. Here are a few ways to get news on the Internet:
- Major and local newspapers maintain Web sites and update their stories frequently. Most repeat their print stories and advertisements, as do TV networks, cable TV news channels, and many radio stations.
- Ezines are online-only publications. Some of these, such as Slate or Salon, are widely read. Most link the reader to a huge number of other sources of information and opinion.
- Blogs are sites where individuals post personal observations and opinions about an immense number of subjects. Blogs are extremely variable in reliability, quality, relevance, and significance. Some bloggers are just sounding off; others are respected experts in their fields. Some blogs are full of information, referring the reader to dozens of excellent sources; others are simply opinionated, offering nothing more than unsupported assertions.
- Podcasts are digital files distributed over the Internet via computers and portable media players to multiple other sites. Some podcasts are live; others are recordings of previous programs. Like blogs, podcasts cover the range of subjects, quality, and reliability.
Social Networking Sites“Trust, but verify” is the most practical approach to social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter.
- Although they are not primarily intended to be sources of information, a great deal of information is available on these sites. They invite everyone to post personal information about their ideas and activities in a semi-private forum.
- Free and simple to use, social networking sites appeal to millions. And because they appeal so broadly, they may provide both remarkably valuable and remarkably worthless information.
- There are widely recognized, though informal, rules for people who communicate via the Internet. You can find information about these rules, called “Netiquette.” Newer conventions arise to meet the latest situations as the Internet develops, but these basic guidelines will probably remain in effect.
Certain precautions are advisable, both about information you receive and information you offer, if you participate in the intensely intertwined Internet community.
The most important things to remember about any electronic communication—email, blog, tweet, or anything else—are that
- Once posted or sent, the communication is out of your control.
- You cannot know who will find it.
- You cannot know how it will be used. There are countless stories about
- prospective employers who discover disqualifying information, like a boast about cheating on tests, on applicants’ Facebook pages, or
- women who’ve broken off romantic relationships, and then find erotic pictures of themselves posted by malicious exes for public viewing.
Protect yourself by thinking before you post or send electronic communications. You might as well be sending them to the whole world.
Checking Others’ Information
It’s easy to fake an Internet identity—to post a photo of oneself at a much younger age (or even of someone else), or to invent a job, a life style, a hometown, or any other detail. This leaves social networkers vulnerable to scammers and other criminals.
- Set up first encounters with people you meet online without divulging your address or phone number. It’s best to meet in a public place like a park or restaurant in a central location—not just once, but several times, until you are comfortable that this is not a fake of some kind.
- Be aware of signs of fakery or other common signs of deception. Signs of fakery may be familiar to you from your experience in a group. Some signs to be cautious about from Internet contacts are
- Immediate and extreme flattery about how wonderful or perfect you are;
- Pressure to move the relationship forward faster, borrow money, or join some enterprise;
- Probing for information about your financial or family situation;
- Evasiveness about sharing their own personal information; or the opposite,
- Undue readiness to share intimate personal information (which puts pressure on you to do the same). If you are uncertain about this kind of exchange, read more at Boundaries and Relationships.
Information overload may occur when you take in more information than your brain can readily process. The resulting confusion can lead to decisions or actions that are as harmful as those based on wrong information or too little information. Keep in mind that
- Each person learns according to need and capacity.
- Gathering information is one stage. Assessing information and applying it well are at least equally demanding. Especially where so much may be new to you, it’s important to take your time and go in stages.
- One good safeguard comes from the “Stop and think” rule—let things settle in for a few days before you decide what is the best source of information or make decisions based on your research findings.
- You also can consult acknowledged experts and seasoned former members as filters or pointers when self-methods fail or falter.