DOE energizes site with extensive Web searches

The Energy Department's Office of Scientific and Technical Information has set out to make searching databases and the World Wide Web less frustrating.

The agency, which has been disseminating information about energy-related topics for 50 years, last week debuted a new search engine for querying distributed databases. The tool, called Distributed Explorer (no relation to the Microsoft Corp. browser), is the latest enhancement to OSTI's EnergyFiles World Wide Web site (www.doe.gov/EnergyFiles).

The new search engine enables users to do a combined search of 450 separate databases and Web sites from DOE, other government agencies and private or nonprofit organizations. Once the search is done, the documents can be retrieved all at once rather than having to download them one at a time.

Getting to the query form from the home page takes two clicks, first on EnergyPortal from the menu bar, then on the first link on the introductory search page. Or skip the intro by going directly to kratos.osti.gov:1999.

EnergyFiles offers a gold mine of scientific information and an innovative tool for sorting through it. Enter your search terms, choose how many documents you want, and select the collections you want to search. After EnergyPortal returns a list of documents, check the boxes of the ones you want to download, click List Marks, then Display, and the system will pull up either an abstract or the full text of each of the documents, depending on what is available from the original source.

"It takes advantage of the capabilities of each database, rather than building a standard set of capabilities for all databases," said Thurman Whitson, the EnergyFiles project leader. "We can't search the full text when the full text isn't there, but we have positioned ourselves to be able to deal with full text information as it comes out."

That capability in a search engine approaches the status of the Holy Grail for digital libraries such as EnergyFiles. Most digital libraries rely on standard metadata for searching across collections, but many collections do not provide or use any terms that are different from those used by other collections. "If you don't have it, you still have to be able to deal with that information," Whitson said.

Abe Lederman, the consultant who wrote the Distributed Explorer software, said he sees a lot of applications for it outside of scientific libraries, such as using it as a way to pull together the government's information about technology transfer or for searching federal Government Information Locator Service records. He is working on enhancements, including fielded searching, as part of his contract with OSTI.

Some other features of EnergyFiles are not as user-friendly. The Subject Pathways link leads to a topic-based list of Web sites, but aside from a few that are included on the Energy Portal search page, each site has to be searched individually.

The prototype Virtual Workspace offers downloadable software for analyzing data, a push technology channel for getting DOE information and two sites that take questions about energy topics from the public.

Unfortunately, there is no guide to the site that explains how to find and use those features, and navigating the text-heavy pages is not intuitive. That makes the site most suitable for OSTI's scientific audience, which probably is familiar with Web searching and with the type of material EnergyFiles has to offer.

Valerie Allen, the technical information specialist who manages the site, agreed that OSTI needs to improve EnergyFiles' help screens. And OSTI officials said the site, which won a Hammer Award from Vice President Al Gore in April, will continue to be upgraded.

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