ABOUT.COM: A HOME BASE ON THE NET
When I'm doing training on internet searching, the first thing I always tell people is to figure out what users want to end up with. If they want answers to questions, don't give them a a set of pages that MIGHT have an answer, search through reference sources or faq files to find an answer that satisfies them. If they want to see a variety of good resources on a particular topic or discipline, go to an excellent directory like Scout Report Signpost (http://www.signpost.org/signpost/) or Librarians' Index to the Internet (http://lii.org/) and see what sites they recommend.
But sometimes what people are looking for is a home on the net, a site that not only gives expert guidance to the good resources on a topic they care about, but also provides a community, a place to talk with other people who care about it just as much, a place where experts will answer users' questions, a place where new information is always being served.
After all, many of us have our private obsessions that absolutely nobody around us cares about at all. If we start talking in public about these passions -- the Klingon language, say, or the subtexts of romance novels, or building our own rockets (or in my case, the subject of my master's thesis, the agnostic orator Robert G. Ingersoll) -- people may even think we're a little nutty. We have learned to hide our interests, and indulge them privately. But we'd really like to find more people like us.
A good starting place for people like us is http://about.com /, which began life as The Mining Company. It doesn't cover every topic -- it couldn't afford to -- but for 700 major topics, it provides human guides who find and organize the kinds of web content that matter most to people who care about them. Nor are these guide sites static. The expert guides create original content, writing weekly articles about the topic, which are then archived, adding to the wealth of information. Currently, About.com offers information on more than 50,000 topics, with links to over a million sites.
Take a look at the page on mountain biking, for instance. There's a guide for beginners, info on accessories, bike and component manufacturers, nutrition, personal sites and professional sites, races, tours and events, recommended trails, and more. Look farther. There's a set of related topical guides that you might want to click on. There's a Bikers Board, where you can post questions, The Chain Chat, a forum that is open 24 hours a day, and a set of Helpful How-To's.
This week's feature articles include "Bike Shopping on a Budget" and a discussion of whether to buy a cycling computer. The extensive archive of articles includes advice on what to take along on a ride, and how to get adequate hydration, choose the best bike for the best price, choose a helmet, and do your own tune-up. What's more, you can have each week's articles e-mailed to you.
If you don't care about mountain biking, try something you do care about -- children's literature, say, or librarianship or quilting or cartooning or Christian music or model railroading.
By all means, try Chris Sherman's guide to searching the web (http://websearch.about.com/), and subscribe to his weekly newsletter. I think I'm pretty good at web searching, but I learn something from every article Chris writes.
[You will notice, when you visit About.com that there is an affiliate program, whereby people like me could register and get two cents for every clickthrough from our links. Though it would be nice to have the money, I have chosen not to do that because in my book that would compromise my reputation as an honest broker by giving me a stake in steering you to the sites I recommend.]
And incidentally, if you enjoy Chris Sherman's community of Web Search, you should also look into Free Pint http://www.freepint.co.uk/, which provides many of the same kinds of features. There are articles on searching, "My Favorite Tipples" (favorite websites submitted by readers), book reviews, an archive of past issues, and the Free Pint Bar (and the Student Bar) where you can figuratively pull up a chair, have a pint, and sit around and chat and ask questions.
Bringing likeminded people together, and providing this sort of home for them, is one of the most valuable services the net performs. When you sense that that's what your patron really wants, About.com is a splendid place to start looking.
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Home, in one form or another, is the great object of life.
Josiah Gilbert Holland. "Home." Gold-Foil Hammered from Popular Proverbs.
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Note: I'm leaving it at that for this week. I just finished a rough draft of the entire manuscript for my collection of the wit and wisdom of Barbara Quint, and I'm good and tired of staring at the computer. I'll offer something more substantial next week.
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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.