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Navigating the Open Web to Find Information

Image result for because fake news can have real-world consequencesWe use the open internet to search for information all the time. Search engines like Google (the largest and most popular, with billions of web pages, PDFs, text-based documents, images and videos, and more) give us practically limitless search results, from all sorts of sources.

So, with such a large number of results, how do you know you're finding the best, most reliable information out there, especially for college-level research? 

If you use the open web for research, follow these tips to find the best results:

  • choose a topic, develop a research question using the KWL exercise, and brainstorm relevant keywords.
  • be aware of your biases: know that you may be searching for information that fits an opinion or belief.
  • keep in mind that your search is only as good as you make it: there's a lot of misleading information on the open web, and the information you're looking for may be buried deep in your search results. Choose your search terms and evaluate what you find carefully.
  • basic searching is generally accessed on the landing page of a search engine. 
    • search results will include the primary words you type in, but articles such as a, an, the will most likely be dropped, so searching The State of Illinois may bring results that only use State and/or Illinois in the search.
  • advanced searching is a little more complex, but can be more effective:
    • locate the search engine's advanced search function (for Google it's and use the additional boxes there to limit or refine your search.
    • use quotation marks to find an exact phrase (search for "French Revolution" to find specific results, rather than results that may include the words "French" and "revolution" anywhere in the text, but not necessarily linked). Using quotation marks will also help to include articles in your search terms (e.g. "The United States of America" vs. the united states of America)
    • use Boolean operators (AND/OR/NOT) to link search terms or to expand or limit your search.
    • add file extension designations if you are looking for a particular document format (.pdf, .doc, .xls, .ppt, and so forth), or domain names to find a particular type of website (.org, .gov, etc.).
  • evaluate the information you find! Use your judgment, the CRAAP test, and other resources on this page.

Some information adapted from‚Äč, accessed 3 October 2018.

Guides to Help You Evaluate Information Found Online

The Information Life Cycle

Because of the information life cycle, where you look for information depends in large part on when it happened. For reasons of public interest, technology, and economics, information moves through society at a somewhat predictable pace.

Why? A news team can film something happening, send it back to the station, edit it, package it, and then broadcast it on the news in a matter of hours. If the event is newsworthy, then newspapers and magazines can arrange to have coverage or commentary about the event appear in the next day’s, week’s, or month’s issue. It takes longer for something to appear in a scholarly journal because those sources publish less frequently and because the information therein typically includes in-depth analysis. Finally, books and encyclopedias take even longer to write, edit, and publish. The general rule is that the longer it takes for the source to appear, the more in-depth the coverage will be. Note, however, that encyclopedias provide general overviews, and therefore are meant only to introduce you to the topic.

A Caveat! The internet extends the timeline. Webpages or blogs can be edited and/or uploaded hourly but may contain information from any point in the past or present. Even if the information is newly uploaded, it may be old information that reflects only what was known at the time of its creation. An excellent use for such sources is to provide social or historical context to your research.

What Your Research Process Might Look Like: If you have been given the task of writing a research paper about President George H.W. Bush’s efforts to convince the American public that the 1991 Iraq War was a worthwhile endeavor, you might consider consulting the following sources: 

Preliminary Reading

Encyclopedia Britannica entries:

  • Iraq and the war of 1991
  • George Herbert Walker Bush
  • Saddam Hussein
  • Kuwait

An Internet Search:

  • (advertising OR marketing OR public relations) AND (Gulf War OR Iraq War 1991)

Deeper Reading

EBSCOHost and JSTOR searches for full-text, peer-reviewed journals:

  • (advertising or marketing or public relations) and (Gulf War or Iraq War 1991)

The Library’s Online Catalog:

  • Iraq War 1991 and mass media

Contextual Research

A search:

  • Desert Storm AND Gulf War 1991

Newspaper or Magazine Archives in Microfiche/Microfilm or online databases:

  • Scanning the dates October 1990 to February 1991 for examples of new stories, ads, and editorials to determine the “mood” of the time.

All of these sources come from different time periods and contain information from different points in the information life cycle. Understanding how they all fit together to for a complete picture is part of information literacy.


Evaluating Information with the CRAAP Test

How to Spot Fake News

The International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA) has made this infographic with eight simple steps (based on’s 2016 article How to Spot Fake News)  to discover the verifiability of a given news-piece in front of you. 

Fact Checking Websites

    PolitiFact is a fact-checking website that rates the accuracy of claims by elected officials and others who speak up in American politics. PolitiFact is run by editors and reporters from the Tampa Bay Times, an independent newspaper in Florida, as is PunditFact, a site devoted to fact-checking pundits. 

  • is a project of the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania.  They are a nonpartisan, nonprofit “consumer advocate” for voters that aims to reduce the level of deception and confusion in U.S. politics.   According to, they monitor the factual accuracy of what is said by major U.S. political players in the form of TV ads, debates, speeches, interviews and news releases. 

    The website was founded by David Mikkelson, a project begun in 1994 as an expression of his interest in researching urban legends that has since grown into a fact-checking site.

  • Hoax-Slayer
    Hoax-Slayer focuses on email hoaxes, identity theft scams and spam.

  • The Washington Post Fact-Checker
    While focused primarily on political facts, it covers specific claims in-depth and with plenty of cross-referencing.

Open Access Online Journals & Google Scholar

Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ)  Google, Google Scholar, and Considerations for Student Research 

Keep in mind that only a small fraction of published academic resources is available through search engines such as Google and Google Scholar. You will get better results using our library databases

Google Scholar Search
  • Always use at least two keywords in your search
  • Use Boolean operators (AND/OR/NOT) or the advanced search
  • Use quotation marks for combined terms (e.g. "Marie Curie" "French Revolution")

More tips are available here

More Information

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