GURU INTERVIEW: CHRIS SHERMAN, SEARCH GUIDE
Chris Sherman, About.com Guide to Web Search
Marylaine: As best I can tell, you've been the Web Search Guide at About.Com since the beginning of 1998. How did that come about?
Chris: Sheer serendipity. At the time, the Mining Company (as About.com was known then) was a relative newcomer to the Web. I'd followed its progress since it went live in 1997, and was intrigued by its model. I was strongly attracted to the idea of "real" people creating Web directories about subject areas where they had expertise. I was a Yahoo user, but like the founders of the Open Directory, I was frustrated with its numerous broken links and often poor quality, unannotated listings.
When the Web Search Guide position opened up at About.com I jumped at the opportunity. I've been online in one way or another since the early seventies. And ever since the Web began to take off I had been building subject collections and search tutorials for my Web design and development clients. I think I must have been an MLIS in a previous life.
Marylaine: Since you're also president of Searchwise AND a writer, 2 questions arise: How do you find the time? And how do the different kinds of work interrelate, i.e, what do you learn from one and apply to the other?
Chris: I wish I could find time as easily as I find things on the Web! Until last year, finding time was a real problem, so I shifted career gears and shut down my Web design and development company and started Searchwise. Searchwise is a new venture that lets me spend all of my time focusing on search, whether for clients or About.com. And most of the writing I do is also about search. I feel fortunate that I'm able to essentially spend all of my working time focused on a subject area that I'm quite passionate about. It's all interrelated, so the learning is constant and applied continuously to everything I do.
Marylaine: The About.com guides write regular feature articles. How many of your articles stem from questions readers ask you?
Chris: Actually, not too many. Most of the questions I get from readers are of the "can you help me find" variety. With my articles, I try to deal in broader concepts, emphasizing the skills and problem solving techniques that improve searching in general. It probably sounds trite, but I really try to follow the old saying "Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach him to fish, and he can feed himself for life."
Interestingly, I occasionally get complaints from readers when I write about something "off topic" like cybersquatting or Web copyright issues. I write about these things because I feel they can have serious implications for what we will be able to *find* on the Web. But some people don't like them because they aren't about "searching." Fortunately, About.com gives me wide latitude to write about things I feel are important, so I don't let these complaints bother me.
Marylaine: What do your users seem to find most puzzling/frustrating about the net?
Chris: That it's not organized like a library, and that search engines lack the intuition and empathy librarians apply when helping patrons. I'm constantly amazed that people seem to think they're expert searchers just because they have figured out how to type search terms into a query box.
The other misconception that many people have is that they can find literally anything on the Net, and that the Net is the best place to look for any kind of information. One of my most frequent responses to "can you help me find" questions is to recommend a telephone call to the writer's local reference librarian.
Marylaine: Who are your favorite fellow guides at About.Com, and who else do you generally learn a lot from?
Though I've been a Guide for a couple of years, I'm still discovering great sites that I had no idea existed on About.com (there are now something like 780 unique topical sites on the service, with new Guides and sites coming on weekly). In fact, to keep up the pace of discovery I started highlighting a Guide site that I find personally useful in my newsletter each week. I've got several favorite sites but two that I use frequently are David Emery's Urban Legends and Folklore site, and Matt Rosenberg's Geography site (http://urbanlegends.about.com/; http://geography.about.com/).
As far as learning goes, I'm a huge fan of Danny Sullivan's Search Engine Watch, anything that Greg Notess writes, and I stand in awe of Gary Price's searching skills and the things he manages to find and link to on his pages.
Marylaine:: What's your favorite reading matter for keeping up with the net?
Chris: I've got a list of about 100 sources that I check weekly -- all of the online news sources that focus on the Net and high tech. There's a great site called NewsLinx that carries the headlines for many of these -- http://www.newslinx.com/. Tara Calishain's Research Buzz is essential reading (http://www.researchbuzz.com/news/index.html). I also subscribe to the Scout Report (http://scout.cs.wisc.edu/report/sr/current/index.html), What's New This Week on the Librarian's Index to the Internet (http://lii.org/), Ex Libris and Neat New (of course), and I lurk on a number of mailing lists. And one offbeat source I really like is Jorn Barger's Robot Wisdom Weblog (http://www.robotwisdom.com).
Marylaine: Given your background in educational technology, what do you see as positive and negative effects of the web on education?
Chris: Overall, I feel the Web will have positive benefits. The Web is fantastic repository that breaks down barriers for those who can't afford "information" offered for sale by infomediaries. Also, it provides unprecedented opportunities for collaboration that I think can go a long way toward fostering tolerance, cooperation, and open-mindedness in kids.
From my experience in developing interactive multimedia, I'd like to see more interactivity in educational Web materials, but I think this will happen more and more as bandwidth continues to expand.
My biggest concern about the Web applies to computers in general: Like books, television, and other educational tools, they should be only one part of a well-rounded educational experience. I'm constantly having to limit my toddler's use of "Reader Rabbit" -- he needs to get away from the computer, go outside and be a kid!
Marylaine: What question did I NOT ask you that you'd like to tell ExLibris readers about?
Chris: Not a question but an observation: I'm really excited about the explosion of new approaches to searching the Web I've seen in recent months. These include both new technologies and new types of people-created directories that harness technology in new ways. And you've had the emergence of several "live help" services which also seem promising. I have a sense that the overall search experience is poised to improve markedly over the next year or two. This should provide the dual benefit of making it easier for people to find things on the Web, and add a new level of credibility and authority to the Web that is often missing today. I don't know which is more fun for me -- using all of these nifty new tools or writing about them. Search me? ;-)
Marylaine: Chris, thanks so much for your time. I always learn such interesting things doing these interviews.
Incessant search by many minds produces more [and more valuable] knowledge than the attempt to program the paths to discovery by a single one.
Note:If any of you have Rocket Book readers and are interested, volume I of my column, My Word's Worth, is available for download at http://www.rocket-library.com/. And if you DO have a Rocket Book or any other kind of electronic book reader, would you be interested in writing an article for ExLibris about its possible benefits and/or drawbacks for libraries?
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Ex Libris: an E-Zine for Librarians and Other Information Junkies.
Copyright, Marylaine Block, 2000.