Issue of the Month: December 2006-January 2007
On Helpful Widgets and Online Library Research
Steve McCann, Assistant Professor
Digital Projects Librarian
As online library researchers we have a constant need for small amounts of information to supplement our research task. We may either run across a word and need a quick definition, or stumble upon a website that’s tangentially related and need to save it for later, or we may need to quickly browse through a set of URLs to find one that’s relevant to the task at hand. In these examples it’s possible to open up a new browser window for each task and start a new, parallel, search but the potential for losing focus this way is significant. Luckily, the fundamental nature of the internet encourages both innovation and the ability to route around any problem; see, for example, the widget.
A “widget” according to wordreference.com is “a device that is very useful for a particular job” and according to Wiktionary.org is a cross between a “window and gadget.” Widgets are extremely useful small tools that facilitate an information solution without necessarily sidetracking your work. Widgets fall into several categories:
Desktop: If you conduct all your research from one computer, a desktop widget engine may work for you. Yahoo! Widgets is a good example of what’s available in this space. The tools you select automatically load when you first boot up and are available whenever you need them. Like operating system widgets, these can be a drain on your computer’s resources. Here are a few examples of desktop widgets:
- Super Search
This widget provides easy access to a large number of different search engines. It’s a useful tool if you prefer searching through a variety of engines.
- Digg Search Widget
Quick and easy access to the pages you’ve “dug.”
- Wikipedia Widgets: There are several Wikipedia-related widgets, including:
This tool allows you to tag files you’ve saved to your desktop using your own tagging scheme.
- Newsfeed Widgets will keep track of your RSS subscriptions, such as:
- iTunes Companion
For many, research requires background music. Use this widget to control and augment iTunes while you work.
Custom Home Pages: Customizing your home page with widgets can be useful if you use more than one browser or frequently work from different computers. Google’s customizable homepage features several intriguing tools. You’ll need an account to use it, but when you’re logged in click on “Add Stuff” to see a list of available widgets. Microsoft’s Windows Live is very similar and will be integrated with MS Office in the future. Another promising custom home page is Protopage which features many customizable widgets.
Browser: Firefox has an enormous user community who create widgets that are available within the browser. There are several very good research widgets available through this method. Here is a collection of desktop and Firefox widgets that should prove helpful for your library research.
This tool adds right-click functionality like search, definitions, and many more reference options. The number of available reference sources is impressive. This is a widget that will get a lot of use, if only by providing quick access to dictionary definitions.
This is a widget that allows you to check out a link before actually clicking on it, which is very useful for a large set of search results. It takes a while to get used to the idea of viewing pages before visiting them, but once you get the hang of it you’ll be hooked.
This is a highly social way of storing web links which requires registration to use. It’s an interesting tool, but can be very distracting when used under deadline.
This is a slick little calendar widget which allows you to set up reminders for upcoming deadlines. Hovering over the widget icon tells you both today’s and upcoming deadlines.
While still in beta as of this writing, this Firefox plug-in allows the user to save websites, articles, and citations. When you’re ready to cite the web pages and articles in your research paper, Zotero allows you to create a bibliography of your sources in APA, MLA, or Chicago formats. This widget takes a little getting used to, and it doesn’t automatically pick up authors, journal titles, etc. so some data entry is necessary to make sure you’ve kept everything you need for a complete citation.
- del.icio.us Bookmarks
This widget augments your Firefox bookmarks with access to del.icio.us tags. This is a great tool if you’ve invested a lot of time tagging what you’ve found through del.icio.us. It’s also a good tool for searching del.icio.us.
Server-side: These widgets are tools provided by a website to facilitate browsing, searching, contextualizing, etc. With the rise of AJAX web development techniques, these tools are becoming very compelling and useful. Good examples include the mouse-overs at Yahoo! News and Netflix. Need to know what’s behind a title? Simply hover your mouse over the link and an expanded description appears.
Operating System: Mac OS X includes an application called Dashboard which is used to host widgets such as calculators, clocks, calendars, weather, and more. When Dashboard is activated, the desktop dims and widgets become available for use. Microsoft’s Windows Vista will feature a similar platform called “Microsoft Gadgets.”
If you have a favorite widget which you’ve found helpful but isn’t included here, leave a message in the comments section.