Ex Libris: an E-Zine for Librarians

#11, May 21, 1999. Published every Friday.



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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 by itself

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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, the 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: RE:SEARCHING and 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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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 netexpress.net

Visit My Other Sites

My Word's Worth

a weekly column on books, words, libraries, American culture, and whatever happens to interest me.

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My page on all things book-related.

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Best Information on the Net

Still my favorite pit stop on the information Highway. This is a mirror of the real site, which is currently between servers.

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My personal page

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My resume

or, why you might want to hire me to speak at internet or library workshops or conferences, or have me consult on building your library page.

May 21: find lyrics to those half-remembered folk songs, plan an off-the-beaten-path road trip, and meet the lady who created the Naked Librarians page. And more, much more.

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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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Archive of Previous Issues

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Part 2: What's the Best Search Engine?

Part 1: Clever Government Tricks

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My Favorite Sites on___:


Making Government Work Better

Hot Paper Topics



If any of you do not yet know 's work, before you even read this, you need to go look at http://www.jennyscybrary.com/, where each weekday she offers extended reviews of web sites of outstanding reference value, and where she also offers advice on how to keep current on the web, and how to convince your board to fund the internet in your library. But then come back, OK?

Marylaine: Could you tell my readers something about the history of your involvement on the web?

Jenny: I got my first glimpse of the Web in 1994 and was hooked the first time I heard my modem dialing in. It was all text-based (Lynx), and Yahoo had a ridiculously long URL that nobody could remember. I knew I had found my specialization when I answered my first reference question using the Web (a copy of South Africa's new constitution). If I hadn't known it was on the Web, the patron would have waited weeks for the answer. All of a sudden, I "got it." I kept sliding further and further into the online world and I spent most of 1995 trying to explain it all to my colleagues.

Marylaine: Clearly you wanted to perform some sort of service for librarians at large. How did you arrive at the notion of the Librarians' Site du Jour?

Jenny: During the fall of 1995, I decided I had to do something to bring home to the librarians in my System the power of this new tool, so I taught myself HTML and started the "Librarians' Site du Jour." The two biggest complaints I heard about the Net were that people didn't have time for this new stuff and even if they did, they didn't know what to do once they got online. So my goal was twofold: 1) to highlight valuable resources, and 2) to give librarians a reason to go on the Web every day.

I wanted everyone to "get it" and the presentations I was giving locally only reached so many people. The LSdJ was the best way I could think of to accomplish my goals on a larger scale. And things just kind of took off from there. During the past three-and-a-half years, I've watched librarians embrace the Web and go on about their business doing with it what they do with everything else -- organizing, evaluating, cataloging, creating, weeding, and adding value.

These days, I don't have as much time to devote to The Cybrary but I do my best. I was one of a handful when I started, now I am one of many so I try to highlight sites readers won't see elsewhere. It's difficult, though, as I do this on my own time at home and I'm at a point personally where I really enjoy having a life.

Marylaine: What have you learned that you wished you had known to do in your original pages?

Jenny: Directory structure and templates. Templates can be your best friend when implemented at the beginning. I can't emphasize enough how difficult it was to maintain and expand my site after the first year. I had no idea I would keep doing this indefinitely, so I didn't plan ahead. Now I'm much more organized about the whole thing (after all, I am a librarian), and I especially believe in carefully-planned navigation and layout. I wish I had time to fully explore usability and navigation schemes, because I think this is another area where librarians can excel.

Marylaine: What, for you, are the hallmarks of a first class web site?

Jenny: Content, which like information, can be almost anything. Simple and easy-to-follow navigation in order to get to the content. My inherent librarian gut-instincts kick in for Web sites, too, so I can't always define it. More and more though, I find I am drawn to uniqueness, especially in terms of services. I love coming across a site that takes full advantage of this new medium to provide a brand-new service; I like wondering to myself, "Now why didn't I think of that?"

To be continued next week.


If, like me, you've been watching the way our users have responded to the internet and to full-text databases, you will have noticed something downright discouraging to us, the people who grew up with our noses in a book: they don't want to get a list of citations and go off and find the physical magazines and journals; they don't, often, even want a book. What most of them want is to punch a button and print something off full-text. And because of the internet, they expect this to be the norm. When they get just a list of citations, they sit there clicking and clicking on them trying to make the text come up.

This has strong implications for the future of libraries, I think:

  • If you don't have full-text databases now, you are going to be forced to buy at least one, because if your patrons expect it and you don't deliver, you're dead in the water.

  • If you DO select full-text databases, it means that you have now turned the selection of titles over to a commercial vendor. And furthermore, that commercial vendor may or may not continue to index and deliver full-text journals you were counting on having available.

  • If your patrons don't use your physical journal subscriptions, you're going to have to rethink what you're subscribing to and why. When the database has significant backfiles of journals, you may not want to keep long runs of physical volumes anymore.

  • Publishers may find their choice is to offer their product online or die, because usage patterns of journals that are NOT available full-text will decrease dramatically, regardless of their excellence. (Rule: if the choice is between convenience and appropriateness, convenience wins every time.) Scholars of the future may well find that the only works that get cited are texts that are available online.

  • But this presupposes that electronic data storage is permanent. Guess what? Electronic data gets corrupted over time.

Raises questions, doesn't it? We have always been the ones who preserved history for the next generations. But who will be doing the choosing of electronic texts we offer our users? Who are we building collections for: our current users, or their descendants?

If librarians want to continue to be the guardians of a historical record gone electronic, we're going to have to be a lot more vigilant about preservation than we have been in the past, ready if necessary to convert data to new formats. (Information on microcards, you'll recall, stopped being accessible once nobody had microcard readers.)

Think about how much we do not know about film history because the nitrate film stock burned, about television history because the kinescopes were thrown away, about the daily life of the late 19th century because the old yellow acid-based newspapers disintegrated.

These questions may not affect us very much in our day-to-day activities in libraries. But somebody in our profession is going to have to answer them, because the historical record ain't what it used to be.


Heard about the flap at the San Francisco Public Library? Seems an 11 year old boy wanted to be the "reading wizard," and dress up in a wizard costume and read books to children there. The librarian at his branch library said "No, thank you." And next thing you know, the newspapers had headline stories about librarians who were such soulless bureaucrats they couldn't appreciate and cultivate a child's generosity. The mayor then demanded that the boy be allowed to do his thing at the library, and, perforce, the library changed its policy. (For contrasting views of this story, read the story about the mayor-enforced change in library policy at http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?file=/chronicle/archive/1999/05/13 /MN70991.DTL, and then read Jon Carroll's treatment at http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?file=/chronicle/archive/1999/05/17 /DD41781.DTL)

Do you have a feeling that the library could have handled the boy's initial request more gracefully? After all, we all have, and need, policies about what is done under our library's name and sponsorship -- if we allow a lovely exhibit from China in our lobby, what do we do when the Holocaust deniers ask to run an exhibit in our lobby too?

The question is, how do we handle the people who don't like our policies? How do we explain ourselves well enough that we don't show up on the front pages of our local newspapers as rigid rule-bound bureaucrats ourselves? And if we haven't thought about that yet, maybe we need to.

For another take on librarians as convenient political targets, see my column, Visigoths at http://marylaine.com/myword/visigoth.html

You are welcome to copy and distribute or e-mail any of these articles as long as you credit Ex Libris and give its URL.