Extras – Searching for Government Information? Shed a Little Northern Light on the Subject

Diana Botluk is a reference librarian at the Judge Kathryn J. DuFour Law Library at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., and is the author of the The Legal List: Research on the Internet. She teaches legal research at CAPCON, Catholic University Law School, and the University of Maryland. Take a class with Diana! Here’s how…

Northern Light

Northern Light is a web search engine created to address the lack of organization and quality information provided by other general web search engines. It accomplishes this in two ways.

Two Sets of Resources in One

First, a search using Northern Light really searches two subsets of information simultaneously. It acts as both a general search engine, resulting in documents gathered from the Internet at large. At the same time, Northern Light searches through its special collection database for articles and other documents from over 6,900 magazines, journals, books, newspapers, pamphlets, and newswires. Most of the special collection sources date back to 1995; however, some date as far back as 1990. Results from the web search appear as links to the sites where the information is located, while results from the special collection search provide citations to and abstracts of the documents found. The results of both searches are free, but Northern Light charges a small fee to access the full text of documents in the special collection.

Customized Search Folders

The second feature of Northern Light to address the need for organization and quality is its most unique feature, its organization of results into customized search folders. Northern Light really provides two results lists. One lists results by relevancy score, like most search engines. But the other divides results into similar categories, like pages from a single domain or a certain type of domain, and organizes them into easy-to-use custom search folders. These folders are created to match each unique set of results for each unique search. Thus, they differ from search to search. Results from both the web and special collection are fully integrated into both the regular results list and the custom search folders, except for the one folder that always has only the special collection material found for each search.

Northern Light launched its search service three years ago, and has been expanding ever since. Northern Light continues to add more sources to its special collection, but has also refined its service to assist with search precision. Researchers can now search specifically for business information, stock quotes, investment reports, and news articles. Its latest addition, Geo Search, searches for locations of all sorts, including business locations, activities and services all over the United States and Canada. Another useful feature of Northern Light is its alert service, where an e-mail can alert you to new information based on any given search.


Last year, Northern Light teamed with the National Technical Information Service to provide a unique search service called Usgovsearch. Usgovsearch combines a government focused version of the Northern Light with the NTIS archive of government information products. Thus, one search at Usgovsearch simultaneously provides results from three distinct subsets: the NTIS archive, Northern Light’s special collection, and government web sites. Like Northern Light, Usgovsearch integrates the results and presents them in both the relevancy ranked results list and the custom search folders created specifically for each unique search request. What the researcher sees next depends on the individual result chosen, and whether it is a web document, a special collection document, or an NTIS report summary.

For example, let’s say the research issue deals with West Indian Manatee mortality. You would start at the Usgovsearch home page and search for west indian manatee mortality through all three subsets of sources. This search results in 178 items, fully integrated in the results list and custom folders. Several custom folders are created for this particular search, including such topics as manatees & dugongs, ecosystems, and endangered species.

The relevancy ranked results list reveals that the first two most relevant results are from the web, one from the EPA’s Gulf of Mexico Aquatic Mortality Network and the other from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. When you click on either of these results, you are brought directly to that web page and leave Northern Light, just like any other search engine.

The third result is from Northern Light’s special collection, specifically, an article from the Sarasota Herald-Tribune. When you click on this result, you are brought to an abstract of the article, along with full bibliographic information. The article is a premium document from Northern Light’s special collection and can be purchased immediately online. Northern Light offers a couple of different ways to pay for premium articles. They can either be purchased individually or researchers can set up either an individual or enterprise account.

Scrolling a little further down the results list reveals a result from NTIS report summaries, a report from the National Ecology Research Center in Gainesville, Florida. Clicking on this result provides a couple of options. Northern Light provides a very brief document abstract simply of the NTIS report summary, in other words, a summary of the summary. The full NTIS report summary can be purchased directly from Northern Light on the spot for a dollar. Beneath the summary is the option to link directly to NTIS to purchase the text of the document itself. Clicking on the option to purchase the document from NTIS removes the researcher from Usgovsearch to an NTIS online shopping cart set up to purchase that full document. The shopping cart reveals that the full cost of the document is $123, provides the NTIS order number, and gives the option to purchase the document. It is important to note that the document must be ordered and is not available immediately online like the special collection documents.

Both Northern Light and Usgovsearch offer power search forms for even more precision searching. To use power searching in Usgovsearch, click on the power search tab from the front page. Here you will see a form that allows the search to be restricted in several ways. You can search for words which appear only in the document or publication title. Searches can also be limited by date and agency, as well as a variety of given topics.

While both government web sites and NTIS reports can be searched in other ways, Usgovsearch offers the unique combination of allowing both to be searched at once with Northern Light’s special collection with the organization of results into useful custom search folders. Thus, Usgovsearch is an excellent tool for any person seeking government information on the Internet.

Posted in: Extras, Search Engines