1. To get the best information, you probably will need both print resources and computerized information.
Start with a dictionary and an encyclopedia to get a basic overview. Your public library or school library should have these references available.
Online dictionaries and encyclopedias, such as Merriam-Webster Online and the Encyclopedia Britannica, are also available if you have access to a computer.
Write down as many related words as you can find. For example, if you look up "sharks"
in the encyclopedia, you'll discover the word "elasmobranch." Or you may find that the scientific name for the Whale Shark is Rhincodon typus and that it's part of the Rhincodontidae family. Finding related terms will help in your search. Encyclopedias also refer you to some basic books on your topic, if you look at the end of the entry.
2. Use the World Wide Web to find out about your topic. Whether you use
or any other search system, remember to try typing in a variety of those terms you jotted down.
Make sure you spell your words right! Computers aren't smart enough to figure out that you meant to type "whale shark" but really typed "wale shark." Exception: Google. If you type something odd into the Google search box, you'll be asked if that's what you meant. Cool, huh?
Try more than one search engine because they all organize information differently.
In some cases it may help to enclose the phrase you enter in quotation marks.
When you get one good source for information, look to see if that website leads you to
further useful places.
3. Try to use very specific search terms or phrases. If your search is too general, you may get a lot of information you don't want. For example, I searched for "California sharks" and got lots of links for the San Jose hockey team!
For searches on plants and animals, if you get the exact common name or scientific name of a species, group, or family (Remember those terms you jotted down from the encyclopedia!), it can help to zero in on your topic quickly.
4. Evaluate the resources you find as you search. Remember: anyone can put information on the WWW even if it is inaccurate!
Website addresses that contain ".edu" or ".org" are usually educational or non-profit sources and are more likely to be reliable. Try to look for dates to see how old entries are, if you need up-to-date information.
5. If you still haven't found what you need, talk to the reference librarian at your school or at your public library. Try to tell them specifically what you are looking for. Usually they can help.
If you are looking for information on the natural history of Southern California or Baja California and have already tried the steps above with no luck, you can also email me, Margaret Dykens, here at the San Diego Natural History Museum and I will try to help you. Good luck!