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ONLINE SEARCHER: Information Discovery, Technology, Strategies

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Searching Secrets of Professional Cyber-Sleuths
By ,
Volume 38, Number 3 - May/June 2014


Because of their tax status, U.S. not-for-profits or 501(c)(3)’s tax returns are public information. These organizations must file a Tax Form 990, which is excellent for digging into nonprofits and their staffs. One source for the 990 data is the Foundation Center (

Salaries of executives and nonexecutives, contractors, grants, and other details into the inner workings of a nonprofit may be included. Many more organizations than you think are not-for-profit—hospitals, universities, trade associations, and even some sports leagues such as the NFL. Any of the multiple sites that offer access to 990s are a must search for anyone job hunting in this sector.


Why have we included the Legacy Tobacco Documents Library ( Why would you look there? Here’s why: Containing more than 14 million documents created by major tobacco companies related to advertising, manufacturing, marketing, sales, and scientific research activities, this database was built to house and maintain tobacco industry internal corporate documents produced during litigation between 46 U.S. states and the seven major tobacco industry organizations.

This is another database we will try in a last ditch effort to identify a person or find an obscure document. One can find a wealth of materials, including curricula vitae, research proposals, depositions, personal letters, internal memos, news articles, and full-text medical and scientific articles.


The WayBack Machine is excellent for retrieving long-lost websites ( If you know or can guess at a URL, and has captured it, you can pick a date the URLwas “captured” and saved. All kinds of useful information might be found: a biography for a once-prominent person, old plant sites for a defunct company, a report no longer on an organization’s website, or statements made by a company before it was sued.

We often use Google’s site search syntax (site:URL) to search a site that has a weak or nonfunctioning search engine. Examples include a database of Korean laws in English with a search engine that yields zero hits regardless of your search, a subscription site for which you want to see if content is relevant before paying for it, and social networking sites from which it is difficult to glean information when searching directly.

For people-finding on LinkedIn, for example, using this feature with syntax: “Jennifer McMahan” might show you more than you would find by going to LinkedIn directly. It is also a way to search LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, and other social sites without having an account. Clicking on cache (it’s now the downward pointing chevron by the URL in the results) will often reveal more of a page than you would typically see without being logged in (who has viewed the page, more biographical information, etc.).

For Facebook activity, Google will help you discover postings from public pages, even when the personal account of the poster is locked down. For historical information, do not forget to search once-popular sites, such as MySpace or message boards. When searching for a non-U.S. Mr. X, it pays to find social networking sites specific to his relevant country or language. Wikipedia has a good list of worldwide social networking sites (


We use Google Books for … well, everything ( Even when only the snippet view is available, that might be enough to find the missing pieces of data that will lead to your Ms. X. Here are some examples of obscure information you might find hidden in Google Books:

  • The middle initial and age of a “Jane Smith” associated with a family about which there was a book written
  • Activities of a small company that shuttered its doors 50 years ago but was highlighted in a history of the town where it operated
  • 1921 Alumni Directory of a university
  • Opinion from a 1940 local court case
  • Family genealogy bulletin from 1984
  • Industry directory from 1965


While the preceding are useful sites for searching across the country, or even the globe, public records are often generated and maintained at the local level. Here are three of our favorite sites for identifying public records databases at the local level.

Created by private investigators, the Free Public Records Search Directory ( provides thousands of links to free public records searches in every state and county in the U.S. Any sites that aren’t free are identified as a paid search. One very useful feature of the site is the ability to see adjacent counties once a county is selected from the drop-down menu for a state.

Search Systems ( is similar to the previous link, but it also provides links to foreign public records sources, which are very difficult to find. The Public Records Online Directory from NETR ( is a portal to official state and county websites for finding public records related to real property, including tax assessors and recorders offices. The majority of records are property-related, though some recorders have all the public records for a county. When no online access is available, a telephone number is provided. There is a ZIP code search for county.


These are only a few of the unusual and straightforward sites we use in our everyday work. Our activities might seem more like   cybersleuthing than traditional librarianship, but the services we provide represent good old-fashioned reference skills using some different tools and techniques. If, after reviewing the guide mentioned at the beginning of the article, you have sites you would like to share, please send us suggestions indicating how the sites have been useful to you. We enjoy sharing new resources and search strategies with our colleagues in the library community and look forward to gaining knowledge from you as well!

Disclaimer of Endorsement: The views and opinions of authors expressed herein do not necessarily reflect those of the Department of Justice. Reference in this publication to any specific commercial products, processes, or services, or the use of any trade, firm or corporation name does not constitute endorsement, recommendation, or favoring by the Department of Justice. The Department of Justice makes no claims, promises or guarantees about the accuracy, completeness, or adequacy of the contents of this publication and expressly disclaims liability for errors and omissions in this publication.

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Bridget Gilhool is head librarian, Antitrust Library, at the U.S. Department of Justice.

Jennifer McMahan is deputy director, Library Staff, at the U.S. Department of Justice.


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