Ex Libris: an E-Zine for Librarians

#45, February 25, 2000.


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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

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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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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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Visit My Other Sites


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

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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

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My personal page

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SUBJECT INDEX to Past Issues

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February 25: pop-up books, virtual field trips, commercials, model railroads, and 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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Who IS Marylaine Block?

My resume, or why you might want to hire me for speaking engagements or workshops.

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Highlights from Previous Issues:

My Favorite Sites on___:

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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 until queried by human intelligence


Andrew Goodman, Editor-in-Chief, Traffick, "The Guide to Portals"

This originally appeared on Traffick.Com as "Andrew's METAGUIDE #6.1," on February 7, 2000

Direct Hit bills itself as a "popularity engine." Search results are ranked according to a formula which supposedly measures how many users click on a certain site for a given search term. For example, the most popular site for the search term "strange carrot" would come up first in the rankings. This is different from the usual procedure on search engines like Excite, which rank sites based not on popularity but rather on a keyword relevance score. Direct Hit also seeks to take into account the length of time users stay on the site after they click on it. Apparently, Direct Hit follows you around!

I say "supposedly" and "apparently" because, although the idea here is fascinating, Direct Hit's technology doesn't seem to be entirely functional at this stage. A lot of the "same old garbage" (outdated links that have been ranking high on Inktomi-driven search engines for ages) seems to come up under a lot of search terms, so one tends to question if many of the sites in Direct Hit's current rankings are genuinely popular.

That's likely to change in the future. The company was recently acquired by Ask Jeeves for $507 million in stock. Direct Hit is becoming an important player for webmasters to take account of, because several major companies, such as Go2Net and ZDNet, have started to build its popularity ranking into their services. As Direct Hit is used more frequently, and as the company works to improve the technology, the results should become more reliable.

Popularity engines have enormous potential to help us sort through Internet clutter. For many users, they may act as a proxy for relevance. Why? If users are lingering on a site which comes up in a search engine result for a certain search term, it's safe to say that they're finding it relevant, or at least compelling. Then again, if Direct Hit refers them to a mediocre site, they may still linger because they're not aware of what else is out there. Direct Hit could potentially create self-perpetuating high rankings for mediocre sites which just happened to rank on the first page in the early days. A remedy would be to cross Direct Hit technology with a selective human-edited directory, such as Looksmart,, Suite 101, or other "Best Of the Web" rankings. The company claims to have something called a "directory engine". With further development and more usage, the goal of crossing a sophisticated popularity engine with specialized or human-edited directories is realizable.

But what of other popularity rating services? After all, various companies offer rankings of the most popular web sites, compiled through a variety of methodologies. Some, like WebSideStory, collect detailed information about surfing habits on behalf of webmasters. Their "Hitbox" product and their "popularity engine" both have the potential to track site popularity in a manner similar to Direct Hit, finding out which sites for given search terms are most popular with users. The Hitbox is favored by mostly smaller webmasters, so its data may be useful for finding the best or most popular sites in certain categories which may nonetheless be off the radar screens of the larger stats gathering services. If you're in acquisition mode, finding the best-loved "little guys" was never easier...provided your quarry has the Hitbox installed.

Alexa is an industrial-strength version of Users of the Alexa toolbar can look at vital site info, including the number of Alexa visits, which may offer a rough guide to a site's popularity. Alexa, too, is a popularity engine, and many users of the toolbar voluntarily keep it switched on, possibly offering insight into surfing patterns.

In general, one wonders if the larger site ranking services like Media Metrix, PC Data Online, Nielsen Netratings,, and so on, could be expanded or somehow crossed with Direct Hit-style technology to provide us with greater insight into which sites are most compelling and popular with users searching for given search terms. Or will they only sell this information to subscribers? We do know that such consultants can offer a ton of data on surfing habits; they track site stickiness and all the rest. But to link such data to search terms would be a real feat.

Finally, let's not forget Google and its secretive algorithm for measuring link popularity. Sites for given search terms which are linked by other reputable sites (measured by how many sites link to them, in a never-ending cycle of reputation measurement) are given the highest rankings.

These are clearly early days for the use of popularity ranking to assess the relevance of particular web sites to particular search terms. If the technology evolves far enough, we can look forward to the day when the best advice for those seeking higher search engine rankings will be: "build a wonderful site that people like."



History is one of those things the net does well. There are so many online repositories of primary documents, images, historical maps, articles from old magazines that the net is a basic resource to overcome the greatest single problem students have with history: understanding that these people were as real as we are, as baffled as we are by changes brewing around them, as unsure as we of whether the decisions they made were right, as ignorant as we of how things would come out in the end.

Among my very favorite sites is the American Civil War Homepage, an obvious labor of love not only by its creator, Dr. George H. Hoemann, but by all the other people who contribute to it. Whether what you want is historical context -- how tensions led to hostility and then to bullets -- or military details of each battle and campaign, or documents ranging from soldier's letters to pronouncements of Davis and Lincoln, or regimental rosters, or photographs of battlefields and ruined cities, you will find them here. Of course the Civil War is small beer in the great span of human history, but it's OUR beer, and it shaped us indelibly.

For a broader view of American history, I'm a big fan of the Library of Congress's American Memory Project, Drawing on its immense resources of books, journals, manuscripts and diaries, photographs, recordings and movies, it brings bits and pieces of American history to life with exhibits like the first generation of baseball cards, first-person narratives of the Gold Rush, early daguerrotypes, American life histories, early films of New York, and so much more.

For history on the grand scale, you can't improve on the work done by Professor Paul Halsall of Fordham University. Whether you go to his Medieval Sourcebook ( or any of his other sourcebooks, for Modern History, Women's History, or regional histories, you will find full texts drawn from the period, secondary resources either excerpted or full text, and explorations into different aspects of that history -- the Medieval Sourcebook, for instance, includes Saints' lives, medieval legal history, maps and images, lists of films with medieval themes, combined bibliography/webliography of key resources, even medieval songs you can play. All of these are structured with the elegance and comprehensiveness of Aquinas' Summa Theologica (on which there is an extended section). To look at the outline alone is a lesson in the breadth and depth of medieval history.

As for the act of creating history, making deductions from the scraps of historical record that survive, I like DoHistory very much ( Using the example of Martha Ballard, midwife, it shows us Martha's diary (with tips on decoding it), maps and pictures of her world, a virtual walking tour of the town she lived in, a timeline that fits her into the borader historical context of her era, and additional information on topics raised by the site, such as genealogy, midwifery, diaries. There's also a searchable list of primary documents used in reconstructing Martha's life and times, including advertisements for drugs and medicines, a text on midwifery, a bird's eye view of the city of Hallowell, Hallowell Town Records, court cases, Martha's death notice, and much more.

As librarians and teachers, we often try to discourage students from using the web as their one and only resource, but for a broad understanding of how we figure out what happened in the past, web sites like these make the net the place of choice to start.



Nothing ages people like not thinking.

Christopher Morley


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