Ex Libris: an E-Zine for Librarians

#47, March 10, 2000.


* * * * * * * * *

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

* * * * * * * * *

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.

* * * * * * * * *

E-Mail Subscription?

To subscribe to a combined subscription to Neat New Stuff and ExLibris, please click HERE, complete the form, and click on "subscribe." To unsubscribe, use the same form but click on "unsubscribe." To change addresses for an existing subscription, unsubscribe from that form and then return to the page to enter the new address.
PRIVACY POLICY: I don't collect or reveal information about subscribers.

* * * * *

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

* * * * * * * * *

Talk Back

Where I will post any comments you want to make public. E-mail me and use the words "talk back" in your subject line.

Visit My Other Sites


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

* * *

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.

* * *

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

* * *

My personal page

* * *

SUBJECT INDEX to Past Issues

* * * * * * * * *

Neat New Stuff I Found This Week
March 10: scenic byways, dukes and barons, the food we ate 100 years ago, and more.

* * * * * * * * *

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.

* * * * * * * * *

Who IS Marylaine Block?

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

* * * * * * * * *

Highlights from Previous Issues:

My Favorite Sites on___:

* * * * * * * * *

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


Jakob Nielsen. Designing Web Usability. New Riders Publishing, 2000

The greatest design flaw of many web sites may be that their creators begin with what THEY want to accomplish on the site. Nielsen, a pioneer in studies of how users interact with web sites, points out that this is getting things backward; we need to start with what users want and expect from web sites. If more web designers took his research and advice to heart, we would not waste hours every week waiting for web sites to download, and the words "those graphics are really lame" would be taken as a badge of honor. If library webmasters act on his research and advice, we can make our sites even more valuable extensions of library services.

It won't surprise you to learn that what users want most is fast download, but you might not realize that means ten seconds or less. Users cannot maintain concentration on the task while waiting for more than ten seconds max; for the sense of seamless transition from click to delivery, your web site should deliver in one second or less. Nielsen elaborates on the specific design implications of this discovery, including:

  • Stick to standard conventions as much as possible: any time you deviate from conventions and common navigation schemes users understand, you slow your users down;
  • Avoid unnecessary graphics and compress them when you have to use them; a picture had better be worth a thousand words since it consumes far more kilobytes and takes much longer to download
  • Make navigation and organization easy and self-evident because they don't want to have to LEARN to use your page and they won't use help screens.
  • Assume your users have slow modems, bad phone lines, and obsolete software; keep your pages compact and test how fast they download and how they display under suboptimal conditions.

    Given the splashy graphic and sound capabilities of the web, it may seem counterintuitive that users are overwhelmingly interested in TEXT -- and in getting to the specific piece of information they need as quickly as possible. This places enormous demands on your navigation system to make sense in the users' terms, allowing a browser to swiftly choose logical places to go to get their questions answered (one stunning nugget of research showed users finding what they wanted 80% of the time when the site matched their mental model, and 9% of the time when it was organized to match organizational structure). It also requires a search capability, because 50% of users prefer to type a query in a search box when one is available.

    Those of us who are old hands on the net may have forgotten the seasick feeling new surfers can have, wandering from page to page with no clear idea of where they are at any given time, but Nielsen reminds us that one of the basic questions any web page has to answer is "Where am I?" This places a premium on clear navigation schemes, repeated on every page, and clear organization of each page, using heads and subheads, because users trying to find specific pieces of information do not READ a screen (an unpleasant experience in any case) but SCAN it.

    There is a lot of specific, and sometimes startling user research here, and a number of useful guidelines derived from it. In addition Nielsen offers numerous screen shots of real web sites, some of them before and after designs, and critiques them for the ways they impede swift user understanding. (This is one place where a picture really IS worth a thousand words.)

    What this book does ultimately is offer an entire thought process to go through when you begin to design or redesign your web site, including analyzing what your users want to accomplish, carefully working out file structures, making navigation and organization clear and user-centered, and always, always, always answering on each and every page the user questions: Where am I? and What will this page do for me? It offers suggestions for testing your designs to see if they work on your real-life users. I can't think of a more valuable resource for both amateur and experienced webmasters, although I would very much recommend that you routinely check out his biweekly column on usability, AlertBox



    Clifford Stoll. High Tech Heretic: Why Computers Don't Belong in the Classroom and Other Reflections by a Computer Contrarian. Doubleday, 1999

    How nice to find a scientist who thinks good teachers, skilled librarians, and large, cataloged and indexed collections of books and journals are more important than computers for learning. Stoll is an astronomer, and quite comfortable using computers, but he doesn't buy into the idea that young children need to become computer-literate.

    In part this is because he thinks it's far more important for them to become book-literate first, a skill that he sees as being pushed aside as both money and valuable teaching time are dedicated to teaching computer skills. But he also thinks that what is being passed off as computer literacy is in fact nothing resembling genuine skills. In his view students are getting programmed teaching modules that offer glitz and next to no content, that try to turn skill-building into games even when the games are pointless, repetitive and totally unrelated to the knowledge they are supposedly instilling. As a scientist, he is offended that REAL experiences with nature and science are being replaced with internet adventures, because you do in fact learn from being there, from conducting your own experiments with optics and magnets, from dissecting real earthworms rather than virtual ones, from actually mixing chemicals and watching them interact.

    Most of all, he is offended by the mindlessness of school bureaucracies that take it as an article of faith that having every classroom wired is not a MEANS to educating students, but a GOAL in and of itself. Nobody in administration seems to have thought out what curriculum purposes will be served by the new machines, and how they will be used. He is outraged that teachers and librarians are being laid off, and library books and texbooks are not being bought, all in order to pay for equipment that is poorly understood and used, and will become obsolete in five years. It bothers him that good teachers must waste so much of their teaching time to assist students with the mechanics of computer operation.

    The man's got a point. I wouldn't want our libraries to be without the internet, because I see it as a valuable adjunct to our book and journal and reference collections. But none of us want it to replace our libraries. And all of us know that without librarians and information mavens to find and organize the good stuff, the internet is like the Milky Way, full of whirling stars and comets and cosmic dust, but relatively few signs of intelligent life.



    Information isn't power. Who's got the most information in your neighborhood? Librarians, and they're famous for having no power at all. Who has the most power in your community? Politicians, of course. And they're notorious for being ill-informed.

    But the internet, for all its promise, doesn't deliver much information -- it's mainly a data highway.

    Data isn't information. There's a wide gulf between data -- bits, bytes, numbers and words -- and information. Information, unlike data, has accuracy. It's reliable. It's timely. Understandable. Information comes with a know the source. Information, unlike data, is useful.

    both from High Tech Heretic


    You are welcome to copy and distribute or e-mail any of my own articles (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.