Pathfinder in a Box

Crafting your own authoritative metasearch engine

September 23, 2009

Librarians have been creating internet guides or pathfinders since before the birth of the graphical web. Look at most libraries' websites and you'll find lists of what their librarians consider the most useful and authoritative resources on a variety of academic, work-related, or general-interest topics.

If someone wants to zero in on a specific piece of information, they probably won't want to visit each and every one of the links in a library pathfinder on their topic.

They'll be more likely to use a search engine where they'll find information ranging from the authoritative to the downright inaccurate.

Although we try to teach our patrons to be critical of what they find on the web, many will go for the first piece of information their search retrieves, not necessarily the best.

One box to search them all

Fortunately, custom search engines (CSE) allow librarians to make their web guides searchable, giving their users the best of both worlds. With a custom search engine, the creator determines which sites will be searched, so instead of going through millions of websites to find what the searcher is looking for, the CSE is only searching those sites previously specified.

Using a CSE, you can take all of the resources from a web pathfinder and allow users to quickly search them at one time. This makes it as easy for your patrons to search authoritative websites as it is for them to search Google.
The most popular custom search engine tools are Google CSE and Rollyo. Both allow you to create a list of websites that you want searched from a single search box. With Google CSE, you can invite others to add to the list of websites searched or make it completely open so anyone online can contribute. Google offers a number of other customization features, including the look of the search box and site annotations. Rollyo enables users to import their browser bookmarks and search the CSE right from Firefox. Another nice feature of both Rollyo and Google CSE is that a search box for your custom search can be embedded on any web page.

Once you have created a custom search, you can copy the code provided for embedding the search box and paste it into your website, blog, or pathfinder. At Harvard Law School, librarians have embedded a civil procedure Google custom search in a LibGuide.

At the Springfield Township (Pa.) High School, librarian Joyce Valenza has created a Google Custom Search of primary sources for students (, so they can search the primary source sites in her pathfinder together instead of browsing each separately. Similarly, the University of Winnipeg offers a Google CSE search box on its Canadian Visual Art LibGuide. If you already have a list of recommended websites in a subject guide, it would be quite simple to create a CSE that would search all of them.

CSEs can also be useful for libraries that have content on a variety of sites. A library could create a custom search that scours its website, blog, wiki, LibGuides, and any other web pages the library may have created outside of its main web domain. If a library has a number of collections of digital materials, a custom search can bring them together with a single search tool.

While custom search tools have been around for years, librarians seem to have underutilized them thus far. Yet they provide us with a powerful tool that supports the way most people want to look for information online while promoting the highest-quality websites.



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