As the web's growth rate continues to spiral upwards, researchers are in greater need of tools to help them retrieve relevant information. The "Meta Search Engine for Searching Multiple Human Rights Sites" is one such tool. It is newly offered by the University of Minnesota Human Rights Library (http://www1.umn.edu/humanrts), a longstanding resource in the field of human rights, and designed by Innovamed Technologies. The meta search engine allows users to search 18 different human rights sites simultaneously or, conversely, to search one or more sites selectively. Currently, the line-up of sites available for searching includes a diverse grouping of human rights organizations -- United Nations bodies, inter-governmental agencies, non-governmental organizations, and governments.
Using a specialized meta search engine is advantageous for a number of reasons: Searching several sites at once saves time. One standard search interface is used. Results tend to be relevant, as only human rights sites are searched. And comprehensive searches are easier to conduct. These strengths are particularly important for researchers, activists and librarians who want to identify multiple reports that document the human rights conditions in a given country or that discuss specific groups targeted for human rights violations. A sample search on "war crimes kosovo" across three different sites produced an impressive array of results.
The trade-off for convenience and ease of use is that meta search engines do not exploit either the unique functionality of individual search engines or the "invisible" databases offered on many sites. Two examples: The UN High Commissioner for Refugees' search engine allows visitors to conduct searches within particular sections of its web site - UNHCR documents, legal documents, etc., or to search them all, while the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada produces several FolioViews country information databases and makes them available for searching on its site. To use these features, a searcher must link to a site and launch a query from the original source. Knowing more about the scope of what the meta search engine actually searches would be welcome. This would help users tailor their expectations of what they can retrieve accordingly.
The site offers general instructions for formulating searches and acceptable search syntax. Most of the individual search engines (SEs) support truncation, Boolean and proximity operators. Links to selected search tip pages are also provided to highlight additional features. Search results are returned sequentially, with a maximum of 50 responses for some SEs. Hits are presented on one page and organized by source to allow the user to better evaluate the effectiveness of a search on an engine-by-engine basis.
Increasingly, more specialized tools like the human rights meta search engine are dotting the web landscape -- for good reason. Information overload is too common an ailment. Any methods we can adopt to improve the precision and relevance of our searches will greatly enhance the research process.
Independent Information Specialist