by Hope N. Tillman,
former Director of Libraries, Babson College, Babson Park, Massachusetts
I see most of my talk as pure common sense from a librarian standpoint . We need to
use the same critical evaluative skills in looking for information on the
Internet that we would do in a book, a paper index, a musical score, or
on an online commercial database. The content of the Internet is only more
diverse because of the potential of interaction with more media. By media,
I mean, not just audio and video but all forms of technology-assisted communication.
With the growth of information on the Internet and the development of
more sophisticated searching tools, there is now the more likely possibility
of finding information and answers to real questions. But, within the morass
of networked data are both valuable nuggets and an incredible amount of
How should users today approach searching on the net and critically
evaluating the data they find?
You need a systematic approach to evaluating the tools you will use
for searching and what they will cause you to receive or keep you from
receiving and also you need a systematic approach to evaluating the document
or result that you receive as a result of your search. As information professionals
we are in the best position to determine and expand the relevance of existing
criteria to new and future formats.
The messages I'd like to give to Internet information providers or publishers so
that the product delivered meets our needs? Here I would expand the universe
of the providers to include not only "publishers" but also "promoters"
and "networkers or communicators." One of the major strengths
of the Internet is the capacity for interaction, multi-channel communication,
and I don't want to see that lost in the publishing and advertising frenzy.
How should we look at Internet information?
Consider the continuum of information on the net as opposed to the continuum
in print. Is it really any different? And if so, what makes that difference?
In print: vanity to very scholarly/specific
On the Net: vanity to very scholarly/specific but with more variation and with the inclusion of promotion/advertising which may be more difficult to differentiate on the net than in print or mass media/television.
The "home page" may be nothing more than a form of vanity
or self publishing. Within what I might characterize vanity would be the sites
where an individual decides to share working papers or information they
have been working on for a dissertation. Many home pages have been through
a rigorous review process and should not be equated with the term "vanity."
Vanity publishing A vanity work may be a very specific document
that has information of great value but it hasn't been through the peer
review process intrinsic to scholarship or it hasn't been disseminated
by the trade publishing industry. Heretofore, vanity and short-run specialty
publishing has been possible in print and can be "quality" in
nature, although its value may not be as easy to determine without analysis. It
will not have some of the visual clues which facilitate the viewer's critical analysis.
My grandfather had my grandmother's childhood memoirs published and
distributed to family and friends. I always thought of it as a very entertaining
and pretty well written story of a little girl growing up as part of an
acting troupe in the midwest. The title was "A Little Girl Goes Barnstorming."
Reading it, it belongs in the history of the American stage in the late nineteenth century.
How did it really differ from regular publishing? It was carefully edited but no publisher
was involved. We look to publishers to give us assurance of added value
and provided quality control -- both editorial review and adherence to
While the term vanity press is a derogatory one, the content of what
comes out of a vanity press may not be bad. But it is, from an information
professional's standpoint, much more suspect. It lacks any of the trappings
that scholarly publishing affords.
Grey literature is another category - pamphlets, preprints, technical
reports -- I am not sure the Internet is any better or worse in its indexing
than were the subject based vertical files of my early library career years.
ERIC has played a valuable role of giving us access to some of the gray
literature for the education and library profession. I would think anything
that is submitted to ERIC today probably could find its way onto the Web
as well, and probably should.
Professional associations have played a historical role in the indexing
of hard-to-find materials within their scope. For instance, in 1972 the
American Gas Association formed the Library Services Committee to participate
in information sharing among members, including the preparation of bibliographies
of concern to the industry, a directory of gas industry libraries, and
a union list of reference tools and services. (Shirk, Virginia R. and Davis,
Marc L. "Gas Libraries: An industry-wide network," Science &
Technology Libraries, vol 1 no. 2 (1981), 15-22). Distribution of those
tools was limited to members of that association not so much by their choice
but by feasibility.
Today, a group of professionals such as the Australian Firenet can share
their information with the world, for better or
worse. Firenet: http://www.csu.edu.au/firenet/firenet.html,
hosted by the Australian National University, is a cooperative set of World
Wide Web servers for discipline specialists in the field of
fire management and fire ecology. In this case librarians have not been involved. FIRENET's
specialized publications are locally mounted and managed and distributed
via the Internet. Among other awards, they have been honored with the 911 Fire Police Medical
Web Page First Alarm Site Award. In this case, I would consider a professional award
much more telling than one from one of the many Internet awarding bodies.
The role of professional associations can already be seen. Contrast
FIRENET with the American Mathematical Society : http://www.e-math.ams.org,
which I would put on the scholarly end of the spectrum. Access is provided
to MathSciNet, a web-accessible subscription database of the data in Mathematical
Reviews (MR) and Current Mathematical Publications (CMP), which index and review
the mathematics research literature from 1940 to the present. Bibliographic
data only is available from 1940 to 1979, and from 1980 to the present both
bibliographic data and review texts are available. Items listed in the annual
indexes of Mathematical Reviews but not given an individual review are also
included. Those in Mathematical Reviews appear first in Current Mathematical
Publications. Institutional site licenses are the primary way that users get
access. The cost for an individual can be steep, but MathSci Online is offered
via commercial services such as Dialog, CompuServe as an option. In this
case the web is integrated with the association's publishing program and
can be seen as just another distribution medium, to meet the needs of their
Current Experimentation of all types of publishers includes parallel
publishing with print and/or supplementary publishing of putting some
information on the Internet but holding back something for the print
publication. The Internet gives us access to large volumes of data. One of
the earliest research projects that the net facilitated was
the Genome Project : http://www.genome.gov. It
allows us to manage materials that many libraries have not collected
before, such as the statistics site Statlib : http://www.stat.cmu.edu
at Carnegie Mellon.
Advertising and Public Relations as an Additional Category At
the original 1995 NEASIS presentation, Clifford Lynch brought up this category that I
had not originally put in my list. Since then marketing has taken a front seat on the Internet, and I certainly agree belongs as a category of its own. Internet publishing categories include promotion, from self-publishing to the commercial variety. Along with providing information about products, it is perfectly natural for companies to promote them. Consider the automobile sites which describe all the features of this year's models. There is nothing wrong
with this information being available and I certainly want to have access
to it, but as an information professional, I also want to be aware of the bias of what I am viewing. This is no different than the need to understand what you
are reading in a 10K document filed with the SEC and contrast that from
the role of a company's annual report.
A perfect example of the value added that a promotional site can bring can be seen by
the bookstore sites, such as Amazon Book Store : http://www.amazon.com. Not only can you find
bibliographic citations and order books, but here are comments from authors and
unsolicited reviews of books by anyone who wants to contribute them, both good or bad, as well as professional reviews.
Amazon compiles a wealth of information on its site to encourage anyone to return and **by the way** <smiley-face> to order a book or two because it is such an easy and cost-effective way to get what you need. What is most impressive is the level of customer service provided and speed of delivery.
Amazon is not alone; its competitor Barnes and Noble has partnered with sites such as the Northern Light Search engine to provide search for books and CDs once you have finished searching for articles on a topic.
There are a growing number of sites that may have started out because some people felt
that the content belonged on the web, but now these sites need to support themselves. An
example is the excellent Internet Movie Database : http://us.imdb.com.
The commercial label is blurred, and the important thing to pay attention to is whether a site has
valuable content and whether its presentation or content biases make any difference in terms of what you need to get out of
Multimedia Issues Given the continuum of Internet "publishing",
additional criteria must be added to reflect the multimedia nature of the
medium. Quality of sound is still pretty early in its evolutionary cycle.
Sound files of any size may take an unreasonable time to transfer,
but that is getting better and I have confidence video will be improving
as well. [multimedia can bring immediate access to bird images and sounds
or animation of a bird in flight]. I am not a proponent of the medium for its own sake, but
where it is used effectively, it can provide an enhanced product.
For example, the National Geographic River Wild--Running the Selway : http://www.nationalgeographic.com/selway/index.html
is an excellent example of merging sound and graphics with print content to enhance
the educational and recreational experience. However, there is the caveat that you need to
have the right technology (hardware and software) to be able to take advantage of the sound, in this case,
a sound card and Real-Audio software. The multimedia technology is not sufficiently
developed that the browsers have everything you need built in.
Print publishers can run the gamut of quality as well, and as information
professionals we have generally gleaned something about a whole line of
a publishers' works and the care with which titles are brought out. In
the Internet publishing field, for instance, there are currently some shops
that are known to move books out so fast that you can expect typos and
errata that will be corrected if there are later printings or the errata
can be tracked down with some effort by going to their web site.
Some publishers are known to be advocates or supporters of different
causes and their biases are part of what we keep in mind when we evaluate
them. Consider the Sierra Club : http://www.sierraclub.org
-- their publications are slanted in a particular direction, just as I
would expect campaign literature, any other form of advocacy or activist
publishing. This translates on to the Internet and we must look at the
viewpoint of the site. These may be explicit in a scope statement, or you
may not be able to confirm your suspicions except by analyzing the point
of view of the contents of the site.
The Internet has enabled a vast new group to enter the world of publishing
- those who didn't learn the culture of the print publishing trade. And we
need to have them use the right information so that we can evaluate their
sites. So we have a responsibility to explain
the rules to new publishers, just as the Internet community tells
new users the Internet netiquette rules of the road.
So how do you come to terms with quality be it vanity or grey literature
or scholarly? I take a pragmatic view of quality. At the very least, I
want my facts accurate, current, and the bias and authority of authors
There is a clear table of contents and very good navigation. It is designed to be viewed both by
text browsers (Lynx) and graphics browsers (Netscape Navigator and Microsoft Internet Explorer).
Graphics load quickly.
Photo Gallery : http://diamond.boisestate.edu/gas/html/galindex.html displays black and white photographs,
which show best on monitors with high resolution.
A collection of public domain photographs of the stars and other principals
of the original Gilbert & Sullivan products has been scanned. Some,
such as the picture of Alice Barnett as Queen of the Fairies in Iolanthe,
has some text, while others are just the picture and the name of the star.
The Midi and Mpeg audio files are particularly appropriate and well done for this site. Since this is for
afficionados, the karaoke nature of the midi files is designed for the members who want to sing the parts. The mpeg
files, such as the Mikado March by John Philip Sousa, are not as easy to play, because even though the format was
set as a helper application, it insisted that I download the file to play directly with the mp2 format player while the
midi files play directly. This represents an existing problem, solvable, but a hurdle to overcome.
What is the authority of the site? The webmaster Alex Feldman is Associate Professor in the
Department of Mathematics and Computer Science at Boise State University,
Boise, Idaho, which hosts the web site. The curator of the archive is Jim Farron who is a computer and electronic
publishing specialist with the U.S. government. They are joined by a number of others
who participate in making this such a rich site.
For instance, interested individuals are contributing libretti, diaries of festivals, and additional audio files.
One member is compiling a complete discography of all G&S that has been recorded based on his
own collection as well as that of others.
The peer review process for a site such as the G&S Archive is the care
and attention of its contributors.
Just as with any print or other types of resource, the viewer must bring his or her own critical evaluative
questioning to the content.
How complete is the Gilbert & Sullivan archive? What can one expect to find here?
The web site archive has grown from the
initial files such as the photo gallery and a couple of libretti which
had been on the FTP site to at least one libretto for each of the operas. They
have now moved on to adding works by either Gilbert or Sullivan
The content includes libretti in the public domain, and sources are
Keep in mind that you must understand the current state of the Internet to
determine how you best identify the quality of an Internet resource in this
volatile, continually changing environment.
Current State of Evaluation Tools on the Net
How and when are you best served by an intermediary tool such as one of the review
guides that describes the resource and puts its stamp of approval
by the number of stars, such as in the former Bschool business school rating guide,
originally the Marr-Kirkwood business school rating guide.
Where do tools that help you identify like resources
so that you can compare them fit in? One inclusive directory I would include here
is Yahoo : http://www.yahoo.com. This is a territory that the search engines
have jumped into, i.e. Altavista, Hotbot, and Lycos. They are looking to be "portals" with
their own directories or a licensed directory as well as a search engine. Check to see which of the companies the search engine you are using is partnering with for added services.
When are you best served by the basic search engines and evaluating
the results for yourself? In a lot of cases it makes more sense to search a
popular search engine to go directly to material on your specific term than
it does to browse through directories or review tools. While Google, Lycos, Altavista, HotBot,
Infoseek or Excite used in this way may bring up lots of screens of bad hits,
that really does not matter if you get to what you want on the first screen of
Popular Search Engines listed alphabetically. Here you are searching using the value of description rather than that of evaluation. Most search engines today have some sort of associated portal. Danny Sullivan's Searchengine Watch : http://www.searchenginewatch.com and Greg Notess' Search Engine Showdown : http://www.notess.com/search are two current tools for keeping abreast of search engine developments. There is no good advice as to which ONE search engine is best. They are constantly changing. At this time Google and Northern Light are the first two I try. It is good to check back to each of the engines on a regular basis because of the amount of change.
Sites are springing up that purport to provide "evaluations"
of Internet resources. The next thing that is needed is to evaluate their
track records to determine the value of their evaluations. While there
are criteria in each case, the implementation of the evaluations are frequently
subjective or biased. Note that this is really no different than what we have
lived with in the print environment, except that now it is digital!
You will want to compare in terms of value to you the level of specificity in
Yahoo and the WWW Virtual Library and the newer general directories versus the set of categories in the various directories
of the search engines.
When Sharyn Ladner and I wrote our first book surveying the Internet use of special
librarians in 1991 and 1992, we noted that
"the Internet allows all types of publishing in the broadest sense--much
of the information contained in Internet resident discussion groups is
transitory--and this network of networks will continue to expand exponentially
so that bibliographic control will continue to be out of reach. There is
no Dialog superstructure to create a "dialindex" of indexes,
and one is not likely to exist in the future because of the distributed
nature of the system and the ephemeral quality of much of the information
posted to network repositories. Librarian skill at creating specialized
indexes or other retrieval tools will be needed." (Sharyn J. Ladner
and Hope N. Tillman, Internet and Special Librarians: Use, Training,
and the Future. Washington, D.C.: Special Libraries Association, 1993,
What a difference a couple of years makes. Our crystal ball was not
very good. There is the potential for a whole lot more bibliographic control
today; and at the same time there is increasing complexity. I still believe
in the importance of information professionals' contributing their skill
to develop the searching tools for whatever the Internet is going to become.
What started as the University of Michigan ClearingHouse project now is the Argus
Clearinghouse. It is now truly separate in name as well as management. It has had growing pains.
There is now a tighter process to ensure the quality of their
guides. An early flaw that is being remedied is that many of these developed
as student projects, and after the end of the year, the students left.
After that there was a staff to do the reviews. Then it closed in 2002. It is a model for good quality reviewing.
Not all guides are done by students, and Internet gurus including John December and
Diane Kovacs have been among the contributors. Guides not updated in the past
year are listed in a separate file.
Several years ago, I did a review of the ClearingHouse project handling of business resources for the
Journal of Business and Finance Librarianship. Since it has been over two years,
I have removed it from my web site as out of date.
The original project leader, Lou Rosenfeld, began the ClearingHouse project while
a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Michigan library school. With Peter
Morville, he currently heads a business Argus Associates.
In Fall 1995 to improve the value of the guide, a plan: http://www.clearinghouse.net/ratings.html
was put into effect to rate guides according to 4 criteria:
Level of resource description - descriptive information providing users
with an objective sense of what an Internet resource covers
Level of resource evaluation: Evaluative information provides users
with a subjective sense of the quality of an Internet resource,
Organizational schemes, or how the guide is organized (by subject,
format, audience, or other)
Level of meta-information, or information about the other information.
For instance, information about the authors, their professional or institutional
affiliations and their knowledge or experience with the subject; how the
guide was researched and constructed; and the mission of the guide.
The guides are organized within the following categories:
This gives an excellent set of characteristics to frame how to look at that particular site and
what to expect from it. In this case, it is interesting that the weak link is the resource
evaluation of what his site points to. The site gives a great view of the universe of
education available via the Internet. However, its annotations about the resources it points
to are no more than one liners. I will not have unwarranted expectations about the
evaluations but will expect the site to have an excellent organizational structure.
The biggest value in leading you to explore the strengths of a work.
Gale's Cyberhound Guide -- an early casualty
Gale has been in the directory service business for a long time, as its many library customers will attest.
It looked to leverage its indexing skills to help those looking for information on the Internet.
However, its web-accessible endeavor was shortlived, as it has pulled the plug on the Cyberhound, formerly at
http://www.cyberhound.com/, and will just be providing print reviews.
" Searching for the best sites on the web, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year has
Cyberhound completely fried. (No wonder you never catch him without his shades.)
He's retiring from the Internet spotlight to pursue his writing career.
From now on, please access Cyberhound reviews in one of his quality softcover
Given the ability to update information on the web (if done),
I certainly could not expect a print publication to be timely and that is a major requirement of
an Internet evaluation tool.
Internet Tools of the Profession, 2nd edition, 1997 by Tillman & Ladner
This book served its purpose and went through two editions.
Until 2003, the 2nd edition of this resource guide had a web
site where URLs of the reviewed titles could be updated, and
chapter authors could add new sites, as needed.
An early specialized guide on rating business schools was called the Marr-Kirkwood Guide to Business School Webs
I have particularly enjoyed the development of this specialized evaluation
site which began rating business school web sites for several years. This site
uses a table to display the criteria by which the business schools'
sites are evaluated so that not only it is clear whether or not they have
met a particular criteria, but you can "click" on that category
and see its display at the specific site.
The table formatting is particularly effective as a way to see the comparison
between the business schools' web sites.
Yahoo also started as a project of its two co-authors to share their
well-organized Web bookmarks. Originally their only basis for authority
was that they were graduate students at Stanford and Stanford was sponsoring
their subject listings. With their success, they moved away from Stanford,
hired a staff to help them, and have grown their directory to become a major
Internet tool. They even hire cataloging librarians with MLSes, i.e. Anne Callery.
Their chief ontologist or Director of Surfing spoke at Computers in Library in 1996
and will be speaking at Internet Librarian in November.
Yahoo is soliciting URLs, categorizing them, and adding them to their database if they want to.
They are not guaranteeing their quality, nor are they guaranteeing that they add all that come their way.
Yahoo has grown its list very quickly using people and technology to assist. Those who
submit URLs are forced to select from among existing categories; there is a place to recommend
alternate or new categories. Its categories are home grown using a variety of techniques
but no different than any library list of subject headings, with its own set of biases
developed because of the nature of Yahoo and what they have looked at. For
instance, they poll automatically to see if sites are up or available. They may
not catch forwarding addresses with this technique.
The W3 Virtual Libraries initial approach to subject guides to the Internet
purported to be a scholarly one. CERN solicited subject experts to develop
annotated lists of sites in their fields, both broadly and narrowly. The
problem has become the uneven quality of the guides and even the different
approaches which grew out of the creativity of their developers. While
there are clues on the pages, some have not been maintained and represent
an initial or periodic effort rather than an ongoing one. Others are very
up-to-date and complete. As the web has exploded, keeping up with these
types of subject guides has become much more complex and difficult.
Of particular interest is the WWW Virtual Library disclaimer:
My key indicators of quality (my checklist):
ease of finding out the scope and criteria for inclusion that lets
me see whether there is a match with my needs
ease of identifying
the authority of authors
the last update
what was updated
stability of information
can I rely on it staying there?
ease of use in terms of both convenience or organization and speed
if someone has put something out on the net written for a specific operating system to which I do not have access (in my case a MAC), it must be absolutely unique and very important for me to want to make the effort to find out if I can use it. Another example that comes up regularly is if a document is only available in postscript format, it must be something I really need to read to go through the efforts required. Or, if someone has put up a huge graphic or Quicktime movie, it must be worth my while to wait while it downloads. This is no different than if a publication is in a language I do not read, and I would need to go to the effort of having it translated to read it.
Advice for those "publishing," promoting, or "communicating"
via the net
What should creators of Internet information (especially web sites)
need to consider in "publishing" on the net so that their valuable
nuggets can be found and so that they will be appreciated as credible?
For librarians a well-indexed title or a periodical that is indexed by
a major index are analogous. Certainly, Internet information providers
want their pages indexed by the major search tools like Altavista, Infoseek,
and Lycos and need to understand those serch engines well enough to get the most
important content indexed. Creating good meta tag description statements is valuable
for those search engines that will use them (Alta Vista, HotBot, Infoseek).
In addition to these meta tags, you need to build a summary paragraph into
your web page which can be used by the Search Engines which do not use
the meta tags. Excite used to have a statement saying it did not use
meta tags because they considered them to be unreliable.
For the search engines that are looking at the visible text, consider
what is being said in the first 250 characters of
the web site when the page loads. Engines like Web Crawler and OpenText
will use this information for their summary of your web page. Paying
attention to the top words on the home page would be a basic suggestion;
no different from providing a good table of contents in a book. Sites like
Lycos look at words in terms of how far into the document they are. Topmost
info gets higher ratings.
I'm sure you are very aware of the difference between
the Internet and the online services in terms of indexing. From my own
experience I see these search engines as very powerful resources but
reminiscent in their interfaces of early DIALOG or BRS with their use of
cryptic character to carry out commands (for instance the plus symbol).
I enjoyed the statement in AltaVista which does use the terms and, or ,
not, etc. that if you are nostalgic for algebra you can use the symbols.
But, nostalgia is not my problem. Fortunately the search engines are
fast learners and keep improving the searchability of their databases.
It is very important that you do not turn off your target audience because
your pages have software requirements that are beyond the capabilities of
the viewer or their browsers. For instance, until recently very few had
browsers who could work with 1024 by 768 display screens unless they were
graphic artists. Many browsers in use today still do not support frames. Keep the
text only people in mind too who cannot navigate with bitmapped image maps or
frames. There are other caveats to consider, such as keeping your graphics
small for quick loading. See Walt Howe's graphics guide: http://www.walthowe.com/pubweb/gg1.html
for some good comments on this.
Is it easy to reach your target audience?
Are you sensitive to your customers' browser and plug-in limitations?
Are you taking advantage of new technology where it is appropriate to do so -- even if
you leave some people behind (for the moment)
Do you know who your target audience really is?
And if you don't, do those interested find you easily anyway?
When the wrong people find your material can they find out right
away that they are in the wrong place?
How effective are you in selling via your site
Are your listening to your customers?
Check out good communication vehicles?
This document was last updated 28 March 2003. Some of the sites mentioned no longer exist. Refer to this information in its historical and philosophical context. Since then, a few resources' links have been removed by request. None have been added or will be added. Feel free to contact the author at email@example.com