Ex Libris: an E-Zine for Librarians

#102, June 15, 2001


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Guru Interviews

  1. Tara Calishain
  2. Jenny Levine, part I
  3. Jenny Levine, Part II
  4. Reva Basch
  5. Sue Feldman
  6. Jessamyn West
  7. Debbie Abilock
  8. Kathy Schrock
  9. Greg Notess
  10. William Hann
  11. Chris Sherman
  12. Gary Price
  13. Barbara Quint
  14. Rory Litwin

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Wanna See Your Name in Lights?

Or at least on this page, anyway? I'd like to print here your contributions as well as mine. As you've noticed, articles are brief, somewhere between 200 and 500 words -- something to jog people's minds and get their own good ideas flowing. I'd also be happy to run other people's contributions to the regular features like Favorite Sites on _____. I'll pay you the same rate I pay me: nothing.

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PRIVACY POLICY: I don't collect or reveal information about subscribers.

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Cool Quotes

The collected quotes are at

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Drop me a Line

Want to comment, ask questions, submit articles, or invite me to speak or do some training? Contact me at: marylaine at

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When and How To Search the Net

Visit My Other Sites

My page on all things book-related. NEW STUFF ADDED in August

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Best Information on the Net
The directory I built for O'Keefe Library, St. Ambrose University, still my favorite pit stop on the information highway.

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My Word's Worth
a weekly column on books, words, libraries, American culture, and whatever happens to interest me.

Subject Index to My Word's Worth at

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My personal page

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SUBJECT INDEX to Past Issues

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Neat New Stuff I Found This Week
June 15: tech news, cute frogs, library blogs, food allergies, and more.

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My resume
Or why you might want to hire me for speaking engagements or workshops. To see outlines for presentations I've done, click on Handouts

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What IS Ex Libris?

The purpose and intended scope of this e-zine -- always keeping in mind that in response to readers, I may add, subtract, and change features.

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Highlights from Previous Issues:

My Rules of Information

  1. Go where it is
  2. The answer depends on the question
  3. Research is a multi-stage process
  4. Ask a Librarian
  5. Information is meaningless until queried by human intelligence
  6. Information can be true and still wrong


You probably know that most of the search engines let you listen in on what's being searched, whether with a real-time search voyeur that lets you see some of the search terms currently being processed, or with a summary system. What you may not be doing is using this information as a current awareness tool, a system that can acquaint you with hot new topics, personalities and software, and that can show you more about how users ask their questions. We can use all this information to improve the timeliness and usability of our web pages.

A couple of years back, for instance, the hottest search term was MP3. Knowing this, we could have created pages telling out users where to find the software, how to download it, and where to find MP3 files. We could have been not only timely and helpful, but downright hip.

One of the more interesting of these sites is Yahoo's Buzz Tracker While this site opens on a "snapshot" of recent activity, including overall top "movers" and top movers for sports, TV movies, music, it also lets you view all the movers by category and see all the top movers for an entire week, which gives you better trend information. Better still, you can click on previous weeks' compilations for longer term trend data.

Yahoo is also a news source that allows people not only to read news, but to e-mail stories to other people and set up personal news trackers. That means Yahoo can tell you which stories were most frequently viewed (currently, Jay Leno unplugs, stocks fall, Justin and Britney aren't dead), and most frequently e-mailed to others (currently, prostate cancer's link to number of partners, a stroller recall, Justin and Britney aren't dead). It also tells you which keywords are most commonly used in personal news tracking (currently President Bush, Colin Powell, European Union, Consumer Product Safety Commission, and New York Stock Exchange).

Ask Jeeves' Peek through the Keyhole ( allows you to see what questions are being asked right now, automatically refreshing itself every 30 seconds. These can't possibly be the actual questions people are asking, incidentally; no normal human being would ask "Where can I find demographic information for the country South Korea?" or "Where can I find information on the animal chimpanzee?" When you ask a question like "statistics for Korea," or "find information on chimps," Ask Jeeves will come back with a set of questions it has answers for, and it seems clear that these are Ask Jeeves' modified questions which people then clicked on.

On Ask Jeeves for Kids (, the opening screen automatically shows current questions being asked. This is a much more interesting way of showing people how they can ask questions than any help screen ever written, especially since few people ever click on the help screen.

On the Lycos 50 Daily Report ( the top 50 search terms used each day is only one of the interesting pieces of information available (this week Dragonball, Britney Spears and tattoos are the top queries). It also gives you trend information, with movement up or down from last week's Top 50, and the number of weeks the topic has been in the top 50 (Dragonball has been the top query for four weeks, and in the top 50 for 95 weeks).

Something Lycos does here is worth imitating -- the links for each of the top hits lead to its own category pages for those topics rather than to an offsite home page, which is an excellent way to show your stuff as an information expert. The Lycos 50 site also features a new article every day about an up-and-comer.

Amont the other search voyeurs are Metacrawler Metaspy (, where you can choose the filtered or unfiltered version, depending on whether or not you wish to continue to think well of your fellow humans, (, Snoop (, and Crosslinkz Search Engine (, where you can view both current searches and popular search terms.

What did I learn today going through this exercise? I found that file swapping software of all kinds remains immensely popular despite all the lawsuits filed by the Recording Industry Association; they can co-opt Napster, but they can't stop new Napster-like software like gnutella, morpheus, and iMesh from springing up to take its place.

I found that the most common use of search engines is for info on pop culture. You usually have to get down to about the 18th most common term before you find one that is not related to games, Pamela Anderson, Britney Spears, tattoos, TV shows, movies, WWF and such.

I found that non pop-culture queries are largely news driven -- WWII monument, tax refunds, meningitis, national traffic highway safety administration, Jenna Bush, etc. They are also influenced by season; many of the current requests are for amusement parks, camping info, travel information, water sports, and such.

I got a good insight on how people ask questions. Mostly, they ask one and two word queries, often quite vague, suggesting the importance of a search engines features for refining searches by suggesting smaller categories to search through, or related terms or "other users have asked these questions". A very few users do know enough to ask the question several different ways -- pretty clearly the same person was inputting the sequence "home based business," "homebased business," "business from home."

Many users obviously haven't grasped even basic principles like inputting a URL directly in the address box ("where can I find the web site" How can I book a hotel room on"), and, as we all know, many of them can't spell (Bill Russel, boys culb, komoto dragon, gneutella, hiliday inn, snowbaord pics). It's apparent that if we offer search engines for our web sites and catalogues, we need one like Amazon's, that suggests alternative spellings.

Of course an exercise like this also makes you realize there are some things we really might not want to know about our searchers -- why did someone wish to know about "worship my feet"? But those are the kinds of questions they are unlikely to ever approach the reference desk with. Thank God.

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What this evolution illustrates is that publishers will not go away, but that they cannot be complacent. Publishers must serve the values of both authors and readers. If they try to enforce an artificial scarcity, charge prices that are too high or otherwise violate the norms of their target community, they will encourage that community to self-organize, or new competitors will emerge who are better attuned to the values of the community.

Tim O'Reilly. "Nature Debates: Information Wants To Be Valuable."

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You are welcome to copy and distribute or e-mail any of my own articles for noncommercial purposes (but not those by my guest writers) as long as you retain this copyright statement:

Ex Libris: an E-Zine for Librarians and Other Information Junkies.
Copyright, Marylaine Block, 2000.

Publishers may license the content for a reasonable fee.