A publication of the faculty of the Mansfield Library at the University of Montana
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Issue of the Month: December 2006-January 2007
On Helpful Widgets and Online Library Research
Steve McCann, Assistant Professor
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:
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.
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 blog comments section.