Vol. 9 No. 5 May 2001
The High Price of Nothing
by Barbara Quint Editor, Searcher Magazine
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The other day I had a depressing experience. A client called wanting a literature search on a person's name. I've dealt with this client before, in fact for many years, and I know that they usually want some dirt, if they can get it. (The client works with litigators. You catch my drift.) With this client, long experience has taught me to always get as much information on the target as I can. In fact, with people searching, background checking during the reference interview is always critical spelling problems (James, Jim, J., Jimbo,...) can get brutal. As usual, they gave me as much employment and career information as they had on the target.

Well, I found a fair amount doing precisely the kind of search that they wanted, namely, a "media check," as they put it, actually a newspaper archive plus news wire scan on Dialog and Lexis-Nexis and Factiva's Dow Jones Interactive. As usual, it was very, very swift and rather expensive, though less so on Factiva, of course, where I'm only paying for output, not searching. However, experts tell me that the new service has a couple of side doors that let one make out like the proverbial bandit with a few clever twists. But that's another story for another issue.

The problem occurred when I worried why one particular corporate connection never surfaced in the results. So I dashed over to Dun and Bradstreet's Duns Market Identifiers on Dialog (File 516). Now get this. I dialed in, Began 516, Expand-ed on the name (NA=XXXX), scanned the results to find Zero/Nil/Nada/000 hits, and Logged off.

Price? $2.98. That's just 3 cents more than Factiva's Dow Jones Interactive charges for a single full-text successful hit. Of course, it's a great deal less than Lexis-Nexis would charge through its transactional, per-search statement charges. On the other hand, once you get results from a search with Lexis-Nexis, you can usually screen through the results with the session recorder working and get minimal further charges. With the trick I've heard about on, you can do at least as well there too. But that's still another story.

But $2.98 for NOTHING! OK. I can hear the vendor arguments. "Nothing is an answer sometimes." And they're right. In a very comprehensive database, such as D&B's or the Dissertation Abstracts Index or Derwent's patent files, finding nothing can be the answer. In the case of graduate students looking for original dissertation topics or some inventor trying to verify the "novelty" element in a patent search, nothing is not only an answer, it's the answer they want. And the other argument: "Nothing or something. It still takes tremendous machine resources." Yeah, yeah, yeah. It takes tremendous resources to put a box of Corn Flakes on a shelf. That still doesn't mean I want to pay for a semi.

$2.98 for NOTHING!

We are not amused. We were even less amused when, after sharing our misery on a friendly collegial listserv, one of those colleagues itemized how we could have done the search for free on the Dun and Bradstreet site. AARRGGHH!! Why didn't I think of that? Why? Because I was already locked in on commercial sources for the newspaper searching, where the speed of archival searching is definitely cost-effective. Even if I had slogged through all the newspaper archives available, I would still have ended up back on the commercials for the newspapers that didn't have archives on their Web sites or whose own Web site archives didn't extend as far back as the commercial versions.

But there's another reason, the one that explains the depression. I'm an old horse. Neigh. Neigh. Clop. Clop. And I like to search the familiar sources the familiar way. When guilt at abusing the client's wallet strikes, I can always use the turnaround speed, thoroughness arguments, but sometimes they ring hollow. They certainly didn't stand the clink-clunk test on that D&B search. (RATS!!) Apparently not even the profit motive can move me away from the rut I have dug myself into. Clearly, wandering around the Web might take an hour or two, hours I could bill the client and pocket the earnings. Great! Not just an old, dull horse, an old, dull, lazy horse. Maybe I'm not an old horse. Maybe I'm an old jackass.


So what am I going to do about it? Sit here and sulk. Lie here and suffer. Not my style! I'm going to share my misery. Thin the gruel and pass it around.

Here comes a request, a challenge, in fact. What this professional searcher and lots of her colleagues need is someone to make this kind of problem go away. We all hear and this issue has several articles covering it about the wonderful, evolved powers of today's search engines, particularly those that grind away at the Web and even try to pluck the veil from the "Invisible Web."

So here's the challenge. I want a specialized search engine to climb over the barriers (registration, fees, passwords, formatted question-taking screens, etc.) to conduct a serial search of all the newspaper sites with archives. Throw in other news media when you can. If necessary, I will pay a fixed fee for each search each successful search I mean and then fees per article. If possible, integrate the results by date, though that may require approval by the publishers. You can even pass through ads for going to the original site. In fact, you can add ads throughout the results. But, whatever you do, no charges for nothing.

Oh, yes. After you get that little chore done, let's talk about drilling down to archived press releases on company sites. I tire of paying for the retrieval of press releases from a database producer that was already paid by corporations to transmit them as broadly as possible. Harumph.

About that newspaper archive thing though. If you want to get a list of which newspapers have archives available, start with the Special Libraries Association's News Libraries Division collection at But I imagine anyone interested in responding to my challenge already knows that the only sensible way to start any complex information project is by consulting one or more professional searchers.

By the way, for some unimaginable reason, SLA's own Web site did not link to the News Division's collection of wonderful resources, not to mention all their member services. I had to find it through Yahoo!. That's another problem I would like fixed and FAST!!

You know, for some reason, I feel a lot better. GIDDIUP!! Heigh-ho, Silver! Away!!
Barbara Quint's e-mail address is
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