Searcher
Vol. 10 No. 2 February 2002
FEATURE
The Third Wave of the Information Age: 
Internet Librarian Conference November 2001
by Irene E. McDermott
Reference Librarian/System Manager San Marino Public Library
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The tragic events of September 11 really messed up the autumn conference season this past year. The Special Libraries Association cancelled its October get-together in Monterey, California. Even after that, attendance was not what it normally would have been for the Information Today Internet Librarian conference held in Pasadena, California at its Conference Center [http://www.pasadenacal.com/faciliti.htm] from November 6 through 8.

This was too bad, because the setting was great. Pasadena, home to the Rose Parade, is located at the base of the San Gabriel Mountains, about 15 miles northeast of downtown Los Angeles. The weather in early November is just fine, warm with a bit of haze.

Much of the conference took place inside the Pasadena Civic Auditorium, a fantastically decorated theater built in 1931 at the height of the "golden age of architecture" in the Los Angeles area. The lush auditorium interior evokes a pastiche of romantic Mediterranean notions. Pale satyrs and shepherdesses gambol on peach panels around the room. At their feet, a powdery aqua wainscoting marches around the house and up to the stage. The upper walls of this palace are painted to resemble rippling green and crimson curtains reminiscent of the time of the Medicis. Patterned grates cloister old theater organ pipes. Forced perspective vistas parallel the proscenium arch. And on the ceiling, figures from the zodiac seem to wheel and bless the crowds beneath. The effect is very pre-war Hollywood. In fact, this theater has a strong show business connection: It has played host to the Emmy Awards 25 times.

In contrast, the conference center itself, built in 1973 in a low bunker style under the auditorium plaza, lacks decoration almost completely. A long, windowless hallway connects the meeting rooms with the exhibit area, its ecru vastness broken only by a few lonely looking posters of planets and a satellite view of the Los Angeles basin, courtesy of the nearby Jet Propulsion Laboratory [http://www.jpl.nasa.gov/].

It is as if the design of this conference complex, with its juxtaposition of the romantic early century with the no-nonsense technological visions of the post-World War II era, was trying to express the history of Southern California itself through the medium of architecture.

So this was a fitting setting for a gathering of librarians who strive to reconcile the old romantic vision of our profession (holy books and silence) with the implications, opportunities, and pitfalls of rapidly changing technology. The 2001 conference focused on library Web page usability, patron training, taxonomies for better searching, and a whole lot about 24/7 remote reference.

Something for everyone means too much for one person! But let me offer, in some detail, the parts of the program that I found most compelling.
 

XML for Libraries
I have never seen Roy Tennant so excited. He takes the podium with a shine in his eyes and a bounce in his step. His face is animated. He speaks with great passion. What is the subject that moves him to such delight? XML for libraries!

By now, most of us have heard of XML (eXtensible Markup Language). We know that it is cousin to the HTML (Hypertext Markup Language) that we use to fashion our library Web pages today. We may have had some idea of its filial relationship to SGML (Standard Generalized Markup Language). But the details, especially as related to library operations, remain fuzzy.

Tennant brought the picture into focus. He explained that like pages written in HTML, XML documents consist of plain text sprinkled with markup tags. These pairs of tags indicate what the text between them is. In contrast with HTML, which we use as a crude tool for Web page layout and hypertext linking, XML can define the content and structure of a document. For example, the author of a document can be marked as an "author" element, e.g., <author>Jane Doe</author>.

You know how we mark the beginning of a Web page <html> and the end </html>? It is the same in XML. The difference is that the beginning and end tag set, called the "root element," describes the nature of the document, no matter what it is. For example, a book would have a root tag <book> at its beginning and </book> at its end.

This content tagging allows software to easily "parse" documents. With XML, all kinds of programs can recognize the different sections and elements within a document. Tagged data can be easily pulled out, indexed, and displayed according to the preferences of an end-user.

Tennant explained that XML is a simplified and "Webified" (that is, it supports hyperlinks) form of SGML. Whereas most Web browsers cut us some slack for minor HTML mistakes, XML is very strict and allows no mis-nesting or single tags. Even the list tag <li> must have a corresponding close tag: </li>. (The exceptions are empty tags such as <br>. These can be represented as combination tags by placing a space and a slash after the tag letters, e.g., <br />.) All attributes must appear in quotes, e.g., <td align="left">. Also, XML is case-sensitive: Its markup tags must be typed in lowercase.

How do we know what tags to use? We can sort of make up our own tags. That's what makes XML "eXtensible." However, we must make certain that the tags we use are defined in a companion file called an XML Schema or a DTD (Document Type Definition). These serve as style sheets similar to the CSS (Cascading Style Sheets) sometimes used in HTML. Do we have to make these up ourselves? Thankfully, no. There are existing downloadable definition files designed for different applications. Also, there is XML-editing software available to keep us from making any mistakes.

There are two forms of XML, both of which sound equally forbidding: "Well-formed" and "Valid." The two follow the rules of XML to varying degrees of severity, mostly having to do with what kind of style sheets required.

Now here was the missing part of the puzzle for me. Suppose you go ahead and mark up a document with XML tags. How do you get that page off your server and out on the Web to your patrons? Tennant revealed the secret: There are programs, called XML Stylesheet Language Transformations (XSLT), that use templates to transform XML into HTML or something else entirely. XSLT templates allow alternative displays of the same material and can even be used for on-the-fly responses to patron queries.

Well that explains a lot. So it turns out that, in addition to an XML document, you need its accompanying DTD, which defines the tags you used in the document. Then you need an XSLT to translate the whole thing into a Web page with an accompanying CSS for sending to the end-user. Simple. Three steps: Information; Transformation; and Presentation.

Now, why are we coding everything into XML again? Because it is a great way to store information that we want to use over a long period of time through different platforms and over new services. It makes migration easy, because XML separates structure from rendering. It defines fields and so enhances searchability of documents. Because we can invent new fields, as we need them, XML is very extensible. In short, XML is trying to become the standard for encoding digital documents.

"What MARC was for libraries in the last half of the 20th century, XML will be in the 21st!" exclaimed Tennant. "It has huge potential!"

Okay, Roy, I buy it. But what can we do now to begin preparing for a migration to XML? First, suggests Tennant, we can learn about and begin applying cascading style sheets to our library Web pages. This gets us used to keeping content separate from presentation by defining display in a separate file.

We can write our library pages in XHTML [http://www.w3.org/TR/xhtml1/]. Say what? This is a form of HTML compliant with the rules of XML but readable by all Web browsers. And, we can begin to code documents that we want to keep for a long time into XML.

How can we learn more? Why, just join Roy Tennant's listserv, XML4Lib [http://sunsite.berkeley.edu/XML4Lib/]. Its archives are eminently searchable probably coded in XML!
 

It's Usability, Stupid
The '80s were the years of great advances in computer hardware. The '90s saw the explosion of software and the birth of the World Wide Web. Early in the new millennium, we anticipate a "third wave" of improvement in the Information Age. What is the byword of this "third wave"? Usability!

So says Eric Schaffer, CEO of Human Factors International [http://www.humanfactors.com/home/default.asp] and keynote speaker on Wednesday, November 7. The purpose of library Web pages is to convey information, so if our pages are not usable, they fail. And designing them to be usable is difficult. Even the argot of computers (e.g., "download") makes it obvious that computer applications are not designed to be "human-centered."

To illustrate the difficulty of giving usable instructions to unseen users, Schaffer asked a librarian volunteer from the audience to guide him in putting on his suit jacket without looking at him. "First, put the jacket behind you," the librarian instructed. Schaffer obediently dropped the jacket behind his back. It fell to the floor.

"Put your arm through the hole that you may find there," she commanded, "and swing it around." He picked up the jacket, put his hand in the front pocket then swung the jacket like a lasso above his head.

At this point, the demonstration broke down in general laughter. What could this librarian have done to make her instructions more useful? Schaffer suggested that she could have used an analogy, e.g., she could have asked him to put on his jacket the same way he put on his shirt that morning.

As Schaffer emphasized, "Nobody does it right the first time." That is why usability testing is so important. Web design is an iterative process. We must observe our users as they try to use our Web pages. We can see what is easy and hard for them. We can then redesign according to the results. We can also draw on usability research literature in our designs.

An important concept in usability, according to Schaffer, is "affordance," i.e., making it obvious what to do. For example, a chair possesses great affordance. Its shape just says, "Sit on me." It doesn't need a sign with instructions for us to know what to do with it.

So it should be with Web pages. Clickable things need to look like buttons, with boundaries and shadows. Pictures should look like pictures, not buttons.

There are many rules of thumb that have been researched and developed for our Web usability guidance. These rules are called "heuristics." Schaffer offered some that he thought would be most relevant to us librarians. He noted that menus, for instance, is the best bet for site navigation. Research shows that Web sites can list up to 18 to 24 items on a menu for effective use if the clusters carry no more than 10 items.

To facilitate usability, it is important to maintain the same look and structure throughout a Web site. The science of mental maps applies to Web sites. Here, Schaffer displayed a real map of New York City. He asked the audience to locate a certain intersection. Because the city is laid out in a grid, we found the intersection very quickly. Then he displayed a map of Boston, which is laid out in a hodgepodge with random street names. Finding an intersection on this map took considerably longer. Schaffer suggested that our sites should be laid out as clearly as the street grid of Manhattan. "If you have a good site structure," he said, "the user does not have to use the back button."

What we want to avoid in Web site design, according to Schaffer, is "cognitive friction," little navigation problems that add up to big site headaches. Some tips? First of all, put your most important information on the left, for that is where people tend to look first. If you offer lists, put horizontal lines across them every five listings or so, so that users' eyes can track across easily. Use mixed-case type: Using all caps reduces readability. Don't use too many fonts in one document. The result of that mistake is "font salad."

Color is important. Colors focus in different parts of the eye. This effect is known as "chromatic aberration." Yellow focuses properly on the retina. Red focuses "long," i.e., behind the retina, and so can appear fuzzy. Blue focuses "short," which also causes fuzziness. The worst color mistake we can make is a page that puts blue type on a red field, or vice versa.

Another idea from Schaffer: Don't use institutional jargon on your Web page. Users will feel confused by three or more nouns in a row, e.g., "Interlibrary Loan Requests," "Literature Resource Center," or "WebPAC Interface Use Instructions." Remember: The short-term memory of the human animal is limited to seven items, plus or minus two. The patience of the average human is equally short, so Web pages should not be longer than three to five scroll-downs. Place buttons above images, so users don't have to scroll down to find them.

Another sign of a usable page, according to Schaffer, is that it allows users to easily correct their errors. It tells them what they entered, why it was wrong, and what to do about it, all without using alarming phrases such as "illegal command" or "action aborted due to fatal error."

How can we test to see if our interface is usable? Try the "cookie test." Make paper copies of the interface you want to test, then ask different people to circle what they think they can click on. After they have finished, give them a cookie for their trouble.

Do you remember those drawings that ask children to find the pictures hidden within them? It turns out that once we finally see the hidden picture, it becomes impossible for us not to see it. That is why it is important to ask different people every time you test your page.

Finally, Schaffer concluded, when designing the library Web pages, picture a rat trying to cross an electrical grid to get to a morsel of cheese. If the grid only shocks mildly, the rat will endure it to get its prize. But if the shock is too painful, the rat will quit rather than endure the pain. The grid in this case is the ease of navigation on a site and the length of download delays. We want our library Web sites to be on the right side of the grid/cheese continuum.

"Remember," warned Schaffer, "If your users can't find your information, it effectively does not exist."
 

User Testing Made Easy
Anne Platoff of the Arizona State University Libraries backed up Schaffer's presentation with some interesting user test tips.

In designing user tests, Platoff suggests that we first ask ourselves precisely what it is we are trying to learn. Are we simply testing one page? One function? It is wise to test just single pages or pieces at a time. Be sure to test a variety of users: staff and librarians as well as patrons.

Platoff advises using three testers at each station: one to read instructions, one to record the subject's actions, and a third to write down what the subject says.

"First," she says, "collect some brief demographic data and ask questions such as, 'How often do you use our site?'" Then watch and record the ways in which users interact with the site to identify bottlenecks that hinder usability. Don't forget to ask how subjects feel about the site.

How many people should one test? Platoff quoted research that shows that the first five subjects tested will find about 70 percent of the problems on a Web page. Eight subjects with spot 85 percent of problems. Because we really need so few test subjects, we can use "Hallway Methodology"; that is, we can grab random folks and ask them to give us 5 or 10 minutes of their time. They usually will.

There are four main types of testing that we need to do on our Web pages. The first and most painful type of test is the "baseline" test. This is where we find out exactly what is wrong with our old designs. A second test is called "preference testing." In preference testing, we ask users which button or link text or design makes the most sense. The third type is the "prototype test." This is where we try our new designs to see if they work. The final test type is "benchmark testing." Use this when you are considering adopting design elements from other people's pages. Test before you steal.

Testing will make the design process easier because it guides decisions with solid information. It also helps other members of the library community "buy in" to a new design.

When we test, we should ask our subjects to "think aloud." Remember to reassure subjects that we are testing the design of the Web site not them. So if they can't find what they seek, they are not stupid; it is the site that needs work.

How can we tell if we have achieved site design success? This point is reached when test subjects stop knocking their own intelligence and start asking questions. A site works when users stop focusing on the search task itself and instead think about what they want to find.
 

Search Engine Survivor
"What was the biggest challenge to search engines over the last year?" demanded Danny Sullivan, editor of Search Engine Watch [http://www.searchenginewatch.com]. "How many think it was synonym support?"

Many in the audience of librarians raised their hands. That sounded like a hard task for search engines to master.

"How about parsing the relationships between words?" Other hands went up. "Non-text issues?" Another tough one. More hands popped up.

"All those answers are wrong!" Sullivan exclaimed. "The biggest challenge for search engines last year? Staying alive!" Sullivan ticked off the names of the portals that got "kicked off the island" in 2001: Infoseek, NBCi, and also Excite and Alta Vista, whose days are numbered, according to Sullivan.

The economics of search engines are boring but important, Sullivan asserts. Economics used to be supported by banner ads. But in the last year, that "cash cow" ran dry. Now, search engines get income through "paid participation," which is a mixed blessing. Paid placement is bad in the sense that it gives preference to those who can pay more to have their site listings thrust forward. But it can be good in that it opens up a dialogue between site owners and search engines. Since site owners have become paying customers, search engine staff have more initiative to provide better service to them by maintaining their links and describing sites accurately.

As long as search engines label paid participators as "sponsored sites," users haven't seemed to be too bothered by them. Of course, search engines such as Overture.com (formerly GoTo.com) list nothing but paid links and also distribute paid links. Some meta-search engines front-load paid links, too. For instance, it is difficult to get beyond the ad breaks on Search.com and Dogpile.

But even on regular search engines, participants who pay more have a better chance to get to the top of result lists. Is this fair? No, but it is capitalism. On the other hand, NorthernLight.com has always charged for inclusion, but in that case, it is not a bug, it's a feature.

Non-profits and hobbyists still have outlets, though, through specialized indexes like Zeal.com and Yahoo!'s noncommercial categories.
 

Search Engines as Mind Readers
Danny Sullivan spoke about the curious way that the search engines responded just after the September11 attacks. Usually, he said, search query streams are always the same, e.g., "Britney Spears" and "sex." But 9/11 brought up search terms that had never been seen before. "Sex" fell out of the list of the top 10 search terms for the first time since the Web was invented.

Sullivan discussed how search engines handled the flood of use that resulted as the public turned to the Web for answers on that awful day. When users visited AltaVista[http://www.altavista.com], they found what they were looking for, that is, news of the attack. That is because Alta Vista mixes in news with its results automatically. Although in many ways, Alta Vista is a dying search engine (it hasn't refreshed its Web crawl in at least 6 months), it just happened to be able to deliver what people needed in the moment.

On the other hand, Google[http://www.Google.com], the excellent search engine that refreshes itself monthly, does not mix news into its results. Consequently, it could not deal with the tragedy on the day it happened. When the public turned to Google to get the latest news by typing "World Trade Center" into the Google search box, their results asked them if they would like to make reservations at the "Windows on the World" restaurant "with its spectacular view from the 107th floor of One World Center." Later that day, Google simply posted a message telling people to go away it couldn't handle their requests.

We want our search engines to do what we mean. Patrons want search engines to understand that they want pictures of Spain even though they never, and probably never would, click the "image" tab. Search engines such as Teoma[http://www.teoma.com] and WiseNut[http://www.wisenut.com] get around this problem by clustering results by subject similarity. WiseNut even offers a feature called "Sneak-a-peak" that will display a section of the linked-to page. This helped me when I searched for replacement pieces for my Oneida stainless flatware set. A search on WiseNut helped me to find eating utensils while bypassing the esteemed Native American nation, the Baptist community, and the town in New York State.

In conclusion, Sullivan pointed out that 32 percent of Americans report that they use search engines (which are less than a decade old) as their top resource when seeking answers. (Notice that they don't use librarians.) Yet, search engines don't cover everything. As librarians, we need to remember that they are just one of many tools. Telephone calls and e-mails are often better ways to find the answers we seek. We should definitely use these alternatives when we feel ourselves developing "search rage," which can happen after only 12 minutes of fruitless Web searching.

"And please," begged Sullivan, "please don't use Boolean when searching the Web. Search engines simply are not built for it." Explore your first catch, he advises, because good sites link to other good sites. These links may well bring you documents that you couldn't have found with synonyms.

The PowerPoint slides of Danny Sullivan's presentation appear at Calafia Consulting[http://calafia.com/presentations/].
 

Other Conference Highlights
What other wonders did I see and learn in Pasadena? Well, Sheri R. Lanza, president of Global InfoResources, Inc., described two Web tools she couldn't live without. [See the "Tools of the Trade: Seize the Screen and Scan the Site: Snagit and Quickbrowse" by Sheri R. Lanza in the November/December 2001 issue of Searcher.]

SnagIt
http://www.techsmith.com/products/snagit/default.asp

Lanza raves about this advanced screen-capture program. Use it to suck up images, text and video. Better still, the text captured is not an image: It remains searchable text. This fabulous program is free to try for 30 days. To buy it forever costs only 40 bucks.

Quickbrowse Plus
http://www.quickbrowse.com/

At $12.95 for 3 months, Lanza says you won't find a better Web time-saver than this service. Set it up to monitor sites you visit every day. Quickbrowse visits them and stitches them into a single document. Try it for free!

Debbie Hunt, senior Information Specialist at The Exploratorium, has three Web tools that she recommends Spyonit, BookmarkSync, and Search Adobe PDF Online.

Spyonit
http://www.spyonit.com/Home

Hunt adores the free site monitoring service called Spyonit. Set it up to inform you about Web page changes, newsgroup postings on specific topics or by specific individuals, closing bell stock quotes, etc. Get your notifications via e-mail, instant message, cell phone, or PDA.

BookmarkSync
http://www.syncit.com

"Oh, no! I have that bookmarked on my other computer." No problem after you download BookmarkSync for only $50. Try it for free: You get 20 free syncs.

Search Adobe PDF Online
http://searchpdf.adobe.com/

Use this site to shed light on that mysterious "Invisible Web," in particular, those Adobe PDF (Portable Document Format) files otherwise invisible to most browsers (except the newly expanded Google).

I also heard about the perils of running a real-time chat reference service, at times called a "Homework Center," at the King County Library System near Seattle, Washington. Their biggest challenge lay in trying to answer math questions raised by elementary school students. These students did not want "help," they wanted answers, and the call center librarians weren't as adept as they used to be at mathematics. When they cut the word "homework" out of their reference service title, they began getting questions about library circulation. Then, they got obscene and abusive messages. So, they put "homework" back in the title.

Some medical librarians from the University of California at San Francisco discussed their experiences with pushing medical information out to their patrons' PDAs. Doctors and residents love their Palm Pilots and other handhelds. The two biggest challenges? First, there is no standard operating system for these things yet. Applications designed for the Palm OS are incompatible with those for Windows CE. Also, PDAs are still not wireless. This means that in order to receive new information, patrons have to return to their offices and place their devices into cradles for downloading.
 

For More Information

Internet Librarian 2001 Presentations
http://www.infotoday.com/il2001/presentations/

Sorry that you missed it yet? Or, if you were there, do you want to recall a particularly useful presentation? Many conference participants have donated their PowerPoint presentations to the Internet Librarian Web site. Re-live and review your conference experience here!

See you next year in Palm Springs!
 

Shopping in Pasadena
[These sites all worked as of December 2001.]

Do librarians travel to conferences principally so they can shop for fabulous fashions? Take Program Chair Jane Dysart, of Dysart & Jones Associates for example. On Wednesday, she glowed warmly under the stage lights of the Pasadena Civic Auditorium as she moderated sessions wearing a stunning scarlet jacket accented with a handsome patterned scarf. On Thursday, she sported a silk shantung coat banded in lustrous shades of gray. "What a gorgeous jacket!" I exclaimed. "I bought it in San Jose," Jane replied, "At the SLA conference a couple of years ago."

See what I mean? And there were plenty of shopping opportunities to be had within walking distance of the Pasadena conference site. Right across the street, the new Paseo Colorado shopping arcade had opened just 5 weeks before. It replaced an outdated covered mall with a new open-air environment designed for mixed use, that is, apartments and condominiums surrounding chic shops and restaurants.

Would that be a librarian's dream home, or what?

Paseo Colorado
http://www.paseocolorado.com/index.html

All we had to do was saunter across Green Street to visit Paseo Colorado's eight restaurants and 60 retailers. My favorite? The Ann Taylor Loft [read: outlet; http://www.anntaylor.com/]. I also really enjoyed visiting the DSW Shoe Warehouse [http://www.dswshoe.com/]. Wow! They've got grown-up shoes, both plain and fancy.

Old Pasadena
http://www.oldpasadena.com/oldpas/default.asp

This shopping area, located in a venerable commercial district that has been recently renovated, is located within walking distance of the Pasadena Conference Center. Check out the live Webcam to see the street scene on Colorado Boulevard, which looks much as it did nearly a century ago except for the cars. Conference participants enjoyed dining here, especially at the Cheesecake Factory!
 


Irene McDermott's e-mail address is irene@ci.san-marino.ca.us
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