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Grading the Library Portals

Mick O'Leary

ONLINE, November 2000
Copyright © 2000 Information Today, Inc.


The ideal library portal will have the most thorough coverage possible in several areas of the library profession for all types of libraries.
One of today's biggest Web trends is the portal. Whether it's the battle for the top consumer portal, the portal as the medium of B2B ecommerce, or the proliferation of vertical market portals (or vortals), there is constant buzz about portals and portal strategies. The current craze arises from frantic efforts to develop functioning, profitable business models on the Web. The Web has attracted so many users (over 100 million in the U.S. alone) that businesses are desperate for ways to attract them and hold them as customers.

At the same time, the explosive growth of the Web has made it that much harder for any individual site to be seen, or for any individual consumer to make sense of it. Hence, the portal–an organizing principle that brings like-minded businesses and customers together, to their mutual benefit. Information is obtained, ads are seen, products are purchased, and everyone's happy.


However, portals are new in name only. The role of information clearinghouse has long been performed by libraries, the supermarket online services, and the consumer online services (remember any of these?). On the Web itself, topic-oriented link collections appeared immediately; since that is the definition of a portal, there are already thousands, if not millions, of portals. The latest portal incarnation appeared when Yahoo! began adding popular reference data and services–stock quotes, news headlines, email, bulletin boards, etc.–to create a true, one-stop shop on the Web.

The fastest growth is occurring in vertical portals, which can more efficiently match topic-oriented users and information than can general portals like Yahoo!. Thus, there are thousands of portals serving industry sectors, personal interests, and professions, including librarians.


Librarians, of course, were among the earliest inhabitants of the Web and, following their professional instincts, immediately began to create link collections on all sorts of subjects, including librarianship. There are hundreds, or perhaps thousands, of portals devoted to the interests of librarians and their kin: online searchers, information brokers, knowledge managers, etc. Of these, only a dozen or so are true "megaportals" that strive to represent the entire range of library knowledge and practice. Some, like the Internet Public Library, emerged with the Web itself and follow a nonprofit, service model. Other, newer ones, like LibrarySpot, embody a commercial model.

The differences among these sites demonstrates the continuing elusiveness of a definition of "portal." Nevertheless, there are traits that they share, including those that distinguish them from other vertical market portals. In the latter category, library portals are noteworthy for what they need not provide. Because their visitors are already electronic information experts and Web veterans, library portals don't bother with common portal elements like email, stock quotes, weather reports, bulletin boards, etc.

Conversely, library portals should be comprehensive in covering their subject. Many portals are selective, in order to provide information novices with a manageable plateful; librarians, on the other hand, have no problem dealing with information overload, and want the most complete set of links possible on every library-related topic or subtopic.

The ideal library portal, then, will have the most thorough coverage possible in several areas of the library profession, for all types of libraries:

Some of the portals discussed here, like the Internet Library for Librarians, are also "reference" portals, that provide links to reference resources, from ready reference sites like encyclopedias, addresses, etc., to very specialized information. The Internet Public Library and Yahoo!, in fact, are general portals that contain noteworthy library sections. I've graded the portals on their value for library information alone.


With the moment's craze for portals as a commercial medium, several of the newest library portals have been created by Web publishers or library vendors. Most library vendors' sites are, in fact, "portals" to their products and services. Some, like LEXIS-NEXIS, also have excellent resources for understanding and using its products. Nevertheless, LEXIS-NEXIS and others of this type are not "library" portals because they do not cover the field generally. Those discussed here, while providing some degree of sponsor product information, also have related identities as library portals:

This new portal is sponsored by SIRSI, the library automation company. SIRSI's promotional presence is modest, but then so is the entire site. It does cover most of the requisite topics, but very thinly, and far below the standard set by the top portals. Its "Site Source" is a searchable catalog of so-called "useful" Web sites, but it misses top sites in several subjects, and selection criteria are absent–ignore it without risk. Some links are annotated and there is no search capability.

HIGH POINTS: Disability resources, full-text automation RFP, library organizations.

Webforia Research Community
Webforia is a new company that produces management and reporting software tools for Web documents. Its Web site provides complementary services, including "Communities" in Science and Engineering, Research, Insurance, Small Business, Law, and Entrepreneurship. The communities have an eclectic set of topic-related Web links and message areas. The "Research" community is intended for electronic researchers of all kinds. It has a "Research Directory," which consists mainly of links to pages in the Internet Public Library. There is also a small, sporadic set of links to other research and reference sites. As a generic researchers' site, it has few library-related pointers.

HIGH POINTS: Helpful Web complement for users of Webforia products.

Dialog InfoPro
Dialog's new InfoPro is a good portal to Dialog information, and an undistinguished one to library resources. It is also slanted toward the interests of online searchers (its list of publications includes ONLINE, but not Library Journal.) It is satisfactory at linking to the most prominent sites in a few topics, but otherwise is thin. It has a small ready reference section.

HIGH POINTS: Good mix of access to Dialog data and key library-related sites.

EBSCO Library Reference Center
This portal from EBSCO, the serials jobber and database producer, gets an "Incomplete" because it is not a full-fledged portal, but nevertheless has a few features worth noting. It offers a searchable index to 30 library periodicals. The list (available on the Web site) includes ONLINE and key titles in other library topics. It is a free alternative if you don't have access to full-size library/information science indexes, such as Library Literature or Information Science Abstracts. It also offers helpful links to resources on information literacy and Internet use for librarians. The organization of the site is confusing.

HIGH POINTS: Free index to leading library periodicals.


Like many dot.com businesses, the rush by Web publishers to create portals is driven by heady optimism. In the library field, why else would they create commercially-based portals, when there are already several excellent and well-established non-profit ones? The market will assess their judgment, but for now there are a few library portals based on an advertiser-supported business model, rather than the much more common library-based, service model.

LibrarySpot is one in a series of vertical portals developed by StartSpot Mediaworks, a portal publisher. The others cover books, cooking, government, employment, shopping, and travel. Each has links to principal Web sites in its respective topic and some feature material. LibrarySpot covers both library topics and general reference. For the latter, it has a good set of links to ready reference sites for the usual topics. As a library portal, it covers all the main topics and has most of the key sites in each, but is otherwise thin. It is strongest in links to libraries by type, and weakest in library practice. It is easy to use, with intuitive browsing and annotated entries, but is not searchable. Most pages have ads.

HIGH POINTS: Links to image collections, easy access to key sites.

The Web's best subject directory has a separate Library category with a large link collection. Like the rest of Yahoo!, it is thorough, full of unexpected items, but not complete in any one topic. It covers all library topics, and hits many key sites in each, but usually falls below the standard of comprehensiveness set by the best library portals. It is strong in its "libraries by type" collection; where else can you find links to dance, masonic, and philatelic libraries? Links under the "Digital Library" category are very good. It is browsed and searched in typical Yahoo! fashion.

HIGH POINTS: Wide ranging coverage of all library-related topics.

About.com–Librarians and Library Science
This is one of 700 subject-related sections in the About.com consumer portal. About.com calls itself "The Human Internet," based on providing link collections developed by subject experts. If its "Librarians and Library Science" is an example, let's think about machine methods (or better yet, turn to a good portal). It is deficient both in content and organization. It misses many essential sites, and its subject categories are inconsistent and often obscure. Links are annotated and there is a site search option. Ads occupy a very large portion of each screen.

HIGH POINTS: Library clip art section.

Internet Library for Librarians
This excellent portal originated as a library service, but is now sponsored by the InfoWorks Technology Company, which makes productivity and quality control software. It has an unobtrusive ad presence from library-related companies. It is one of the oldest and best library portals. It is extremely thorough at containing the key sites, and many others, in all areas. Its detailed hierarchical classification provides quick access to the most specific branches of library practice. Its entries have good annotations and the site is searchable. It is also a reference portal, with a good set of links to ready reference sites.

HIGH POINTS: Exceptional thoroughness and a very specific classification system.


Libraries (especially academics) and library organizations are by far the most prolific creators of library portals, both general and in dozens of specific areas of library practice. Several of the portals in this group are successful in providing links to key sites in the main library topics; they vary principally in their degree of thoroughness.

Librarians' Resources
This list from the Colorado Alliance for Research Libraries suffers from a bad case of neglect. It overlooks several topics, those that it has are sparse, and it is not well maintained. It lacks annotations and is not searchable. It's time to put a lot of effort into it or take it down.


Library Resources on the Internet
Another site that should be upgraded or taken down–this one is from the Northwestern University Library. It has neither a complete range of topics, nor depth in those it does cover. Entries are annotated, but no searching.


Professional Resources for Librarians on the WWW
Created by the Buley Library at Southern Connecticut State University, this list covers most topics, but unevenly; some are reasonably thorough, while others are quite incomplete. Some of its categories are too large for good browsing. Only a few of its entries are annotated, and it is not searchable.

HIGH POINTS: Numerous sites dealing with library Web applications.

Library Resource List
This is a good, all-around library and reference portal, with a few strong areas. It has good coverage of all library topics, and is particularly strong in library technology. It has numerous links to topics that others neglect or omit, including library and information technology news, new Web sites, the National Information Infrastructure, and others. It is also a dependable ready reference portal. Its annotations are very good, but it is not searchable. It is produced by the Public Library Development office of the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction.

HIGH POINTS: Library and information technology coverage.

Internet Public Library Services for Librarians
The Internet Public Library is one of the oldest, most comprehensive, and best reference portals. As a reference portal, it ranges widely and deeply across many subjects, well beyond the usual ready reference links found on some of the other library portals. It also has separate sections for teens and kids. Its library section covers all topics, with deep link collections in each. Its annotations are very good, but it is not searchable. The Internet Public Library is produced by the University of Michigan School of Library and Information Studies, with support from grants and Bell & Howell.

HIGH POINTS: Sections on the image of librarians, library advocacy, and library Web applications.

Tied with Internet Library for Librarians as the best library portal. For profession-wide areas of interest–administration, reference, cataloging, etc.–it has created a thorough link collection, with an emphasis on public libraries. For specialized areas, on the other hand, it links to vertical sector library portals that concentrate on the topic: for Web management–the Library Web Managers Reference Center; for support staff–the Library Support Staff Resource Center, etc. This method is highly effective because it leverages the portal-building expertise of expert librarians in each separate area. There are 24 such vertical portals, including those for electronic reserves, library architecture, digital imaging, and archives. LibraryLand has annotations and is searchable. It is produced by The Berkeley Digital Library SunSITE, which is sponsored by The Library, UC Berkeley, and Sun Microsystems, Inc.

HIGH POINTS: Links to valuable portals covering many individual library topics.


The purpose of any library portal is to direct you to specific information sources amongst the vast mass. Short of looking through them all (not recommended!), is there is a strategy for making best use of library portals?
  1. Scan the table of contents of the Internet Library for Librarians, which has the most elaborate classification system, and is excellent for quickly focusing on specific information.

  2. Scan the index to LibraryLand, looking particularly for portals devoted to your interest.

  3. For esoteric things that everyone else misses, browse through Yahoo!.

  4. Don't overlook that library associations themselves are often portals to topic-related resources. Examine the association lists in LibraryHQ (the one thing it does well) and the Internet Library for Librarians, for subject- and geographically-oriented associations.

  5. Organizations also thrive virtually in the form of electronic discussion groups. Look to LibraryLand for these, or click on "Library-Oriented Lists and Electronic Serials" (www.wrlc.org/liblists/liblists.htm), a Web site devoted to maintaining links to listservs and newsgroups.

This strategy concentrates on using a few of the best portals and ignoring the rest. So unless you want to make a hobby of library portal surfing, go for quality rather than quantity.

Mick O'Leary (71735.2041@compuserve.com) is Library Director at Frederick Community College in Myersville, MD.

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