Becoming a Gatekeeper, or,
Creating Where the Wild Things Are: Librarian’s Guide to the Best Information on the Net
by Marylaine Block, Associate Director for Public Services, O’Keefe Library, St. Ambrose University
“Where the Wild Things Are: Librarians’s Guide to the Best Information on the Net” can be found at: http://www.sau.edu/cwis/internet/wild/index.htm
When I first got onto the internet, I started systematically looking through All the Gopher Servers in the World, and it became clear to me immediately that there was so much there that nobody could ever be an expert on it–all anybody would ever know about it was just their own little corner of it. The biologists would find the biology stuff, the historians would find the history stuff. That was all most faculty had the time to do–if they even had time to do that. Because there was WAY too much stuff out there, and 90% of it was junk.
I, on the other hand, was in the information business. I had to make the time to find the good stuff. What was needed, it seemed to me, was a place where I could let people know about what I had found, and where they could share their discoveries in turn. I set out to do that with a little newsletter called The Gopher Broker. I soon realized, however, that the kind of people who wanted to know about neat new web sites were people who had an almost visceral dislike of paper. By then, of course, we were all using Netscape, and they all wanted me to put this on a web page of my own.
As one who knew virtually nothing about computers, I was nervous about this, but a web site was created for me, with a program that wrote the mark-up language automatically, so I plunged in. Later, as that site proved to be insecure, my page was moved to a Mac server. I had to re-tag every single file, which was painful. But by the time I got finished, I knew basic html cold.
There are two basic issues in creating an index like this, it seems to me. The first is what you select–what are your criteria for choosing, or not choosing, a site? And how do you organize what you want to link in?
What you choose will vary entirely in accordance with your institution, its mission, and its clientele. Since this page was going to represent my library, at St. Ambrose University, it clearly had to meet the mission and standards of a Catholic liberal arts institution. Furthermore, I was clear that this was going to be curriculum-driven. Our campus network was rickety and unstable, and I didn’t want to link in enormous, byte-wasting, time-wasting game and entertainment files. Aside from which, the students were perfectly capable of finding the fun stuff themselves. What was far more difficult for them, and for our faculty, was to find the high quality, academic level research material.
I was looking for authoritative information, which meant that I leaned heavily on files created by academics and government agencies. I also looked for sites sponsored by professional organizations and research institutes. Entirely aside from the question of authority, these organizations and agencies offered some commitment to maintaining the file–I had already loved and lost too many disappearing web sites.
Some of the tools I used for locating the files were the magazines–Internet World, NetGuide, Syllabus, Wired, and others. I also used the guides to web sites by discipline in College and Research Libraries News. I paid some attention to the recommendations by Magellan and Point. The Herriott-Watts Newsletter, which is linked on my What’s New on the Net page, is geared specifically to colleges and universities, and was a prime source. Chronicle of Higher Education has also gotten into the habit of supplying internet sites directed at higher education. But as I surfed, I paid a lot of attention to what pages were frequently linked in by similar pages–the more you were linked, I figured, the better you were considered to be. Naturally, since there are a lot of disciplines I know nothing about, I relied on my faculty to help me select the material for “Important Sites by Major.” I got into the habit of e-mailing them interesting-looking sites, and asking them to evaluate those sites for me.
More to the point, though, I examined each of the files at length. The kinds of questions I asked were:
- How authoritative is the person who contructed the file?
- What kinds of data are presented?
- How valid is the material presented?
- How frequently is the file updated?
- Are the links carefully selected and useful? Do they work?
- Does the file provide bibliographies?
- Does it answer reference questions, like who? what? where? when? how many?
- Will these sites help our students do research? get through college? say healthy? get into grad school? look for work?
- Will these sites be in keeping with the mission of a Catholic university?
Organizing the Files
I already had a rough idea, from all my surfing, of the kinds of sites available, and the things I set out to look for, and link to my page, were:
- Full text books, documents, journals, poetry, articles, laws, court cases–because these were valuable supplements to our library collection. No library is rich enough to own everything.
- Reference sources of all kinds–statistics, atlases, gazeteers, dictionaries, biographical sources, etc. My reference desk is my pride and joy, something that I use all the time to answer people’s questions, including my own. I tell people that my reference desk is me in the act of making myself obsolete.
- Important beginning sites for every academic major we offered
- Picture sources. One of the first things that struck me about the web was what a wonderful source of pictures for all purposes this was–medical images, chemical molecules, art of all kinds, travel pictures, diagrams, you name it.
- Since many of our faculty and students were new to the net, I wanted to put basic internet training information on there, and also link in good, comprehensive subject indexes to the net.
- I saw the net as a wonderful place to look for work, and created the jobhunting file. Later, this became the more general student-aid-and-comfort file, when I discovered that there was an enormous amount of financial aid and health info, as well as material on graduate schools and the various grad school tests.
- I wanted the Hot Paper Topics file because, as you know, every semester, all students meet together and select the 3 or 4 topics that they will ALL write papers on that semester. (At least, that’s the only way I can account for this extraordinary coincidence.) There is no way that any library can ever have enough books about gun control, capital punishment, etc., so I wanted to link in good quality, full-text, neutral information on all these topics.
- Disability information, because we have a special education program, a physical therapy program, an occupational therapy program, and an outreach program for disabled students. (At that time, our library was in a building that was totally inaccessible to the handicapped, and I wanted desperately to offer SOME sort of library service to them.)
- News, I thought, was a kind of obvious, though boring, thing to link in. Later, of course, as the news sites became more interactive, and linked current articles to previous articles, they became in many ways better news sources than the “dead-tree-editions.”.
- Faculty and Administration Resources was a given–there was so much research data available that college administrators could use in their planning, and so much in the way of online instructional materials that faculty could use to improve, or change the entire nature of, their teaching.
Other things got added over time. I saw that students tended to click immediately on Netscape’s own “search” button. Since they knew next to nothing about the principles of searching, they tended to get lost and frustrated going through thousands of sites on their topic. Clearly they needed to have other search engines available to them, but just as importantly, guidance in how to search, and how to evaluate the sites they found. So I created my “Find” page, with search engines linked on the left, and advice on using search engines and evaluating sites linked in on the right.
As a hopeless “good government” romantic, I added the “Voter Information” file on my Reference Desk in 1996. I have become progressively more unhappy with the mainstream media’s coverage of the election. These journalists concentrated only on the two parties, and ignored all fledgling third parties. They refused to let us hear what the candidates were saying, and what their legislative records or political accomplishments were. Only a few newspapers told us what was in the party platforms. Since all of this information was available, full text, on the net, I linked it in, along with things like the “Register To Vote Online” file, and “Mr. Smith E-Mails Washington.”
The “What’s New on the Net” file was simply the file of announcement services I routinely checked–What’s New on Yahoo, Gleason Sackman’s site, the Berkeley Public Library What’s New page, etc. Possibly nobody else but me ever clicks on this, but that’s o.k. I’m who it’s there for.
The “Sites for Librarians” came along later, because there was just such good information I had to share with my colleagues, even though, strictly speaking, they were not who Where the Wild Things was for. (This is also where I hid the truly fun stuff, where students wouldn’t dream of looking for it–the poor dears think we’re boring, little do they know.) I added in Dilbert, and the Center for the Easily Amused, and, in an act of shameless self-promotion, my weekly column on the London Mall Magazine, My Word’s Worth).
The “Neat New Stuff I Found This Week” site came about because I had begun contributing web sites every week to the River Bend Library System’s newsletter, Current Comment, and I figured that if I was doing that anyway, I might as well post it on the web where other people could see it.
I was also resolved that I would have an outstanding page of Catholic resources, and other Christian documents, in keeping with our mission; this was filed under Important Sites by Major. In addition, I provided detailed, comprehensive subfiles on ethics, bioethics, and human rights.
Learning on the Job
When I first started writing html, I knew so little about it that I didn’t put in titles and headers. When Carole Leita, from the Berkeley Public Library, mentioned this to me, I had to ask her why you needed titles and headers. That’s when I first heard about making it easy for webcrawlers to find you. Well, since the object of this enterprise is sharing what you know, I put in the headers and titles, and, lo and behold, people started finding my pages and e-mailing me.
The interactivity of the web is wonderful. What it means is that all kinds of people who know more than I do have made extremely useful suggestions on new links to add, new tricks to use to make my pages look better. I urge librarians who are starting a webpage to think carefully about the headers and titles they use to maximize the chance that people will find, use, and contribute to, their pages.
Other people kept offering me advice on the appearance of the page. My colleague, Nanette Miller, who was simultaneously creating our library’s home page, showed me how to do internal links within lengthy files–much needed, since some of the pages were getting totally out of hand. One of our history professors, Dr. Jon Stauff, showed me how to do tables, which contribute to the tidiness of a page (and also make the page look the same on every computer, regardless of the differing monitor resolutions).
One distinct flaw with my page is the fact that it is not transparent–it is most useful when you already have some idea what files are linked in to it. What it desperately needs is an internal search engine, which I have no idea how to create. I think that when the file moves to our own library server at some point, I may get someone to write a cgi scipt for searching my entire set of pages.
The internet and libraries are made for each other. After all, both institutions are about putting information out there for everyone to share. There’s no question in my mind that the internet is going to totally change the way libraries do business. For one thing, why create handouts just for your own patrons, when you can put them on your homepage for everyone to use?
That’s why I began the BookBytes page–I had created all these annotated reading lists of “Books Too Good To Put Down” for a class of reluctant readers, so I just retyped them on my own page. Not only did I make a useful resource widely available–I have gotten the most fascinating e-mail from booklovers because of it. Because so many people e-mailed me, complaining that they wanted to read the books I had recommended, and they were out-of-print, so how were they supposed to find them, I added another page on strategies for finding out-of-print books.
In short, whatever your page started out to be, it will change because of your users’ comments and needs.
Another consideration one should keep in mind is web traffic. Keep track of your statistics. (Where the Wild Things Are is averaging about 7000 hits a month right now, and the traffic has been increasing steadily.) The amount of traffic will affect what server you use, the number of ports, and other hardware decisions that I don’t know enough to even speculate about. The statistics are also a useful gauge of your performance, something to be reported annually to your administration or board of directors.
Another way of monitoring the usefulness of your site, incidentally, is going onto AltaVista or HotBot to find out who has linked your site to their page. I was excited to find out some of the places I’ve been linked to–the Smithsonian, Chicago Public Library, Library of Congress, a number of training pages on how to use the internet, among others–and see some of the nice comments that have been made about it.
Oh, one other reason to start a web page. You’ll meet the neatest people. I know a whole lot of great librarians I have never met and wouldn’t recognize if I saw them on the street. But they have found my web pages, or I have found theirs. I clicked on their mailto addresses and told them how much I admired their work, or they clicked on my mailto Marylaine Block and told me what they liked on mine and how to make it better. It’s a great way to make friends and influence people.