Vol. 10 No. 5 May 2002
Light a Candle
by Barbara Quint Editor, Searcher Magazine
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"'Tis better to light a candle than to curse the darkness," so they say. How much wattage do you think all we information professionals could generate if we really tried? How much dark could we enlighten if we searchers got those honeybees humming and the wicks a-dipping in that melted beeswax?

Let's try. But what heart of darkness should we concentrate our efforts upon? Personally, I suggest that we pick a target that others do not see, one that we know has high potential, but that the laity, even technically sophisticated laypersons, might not recognize as the underpinning of future important content flows.

A simple one springs to mind. Everyone go to your institutional Web sites. If your institution doesn't have a Web site well, then you probably are too busy to read the rest of this article. (Shame! Fie!) But if you don't want to target your Web site, then target a site of a major vendor or publisher or some frequently used Favorite/Bookmark.

Ready? Okay. Look for the contact information. It might be a sub-entry under "About Us" or it might just be "Contact Us." No fair if the "Contact Us" triggers an Outlook Express window popping up. Searchers have a right to contact institutions using the medium they choose snailmail, telephone, fax, etc.; they shouldn't have to obey the communication format dictations of the recipient.

In any case, people use contact information for more than just contacting concerns. They use it as part of a critical assessment process. How often do you seek contact information just to verify the country or state of the site's owner? Or perhaps you hope to find out their affiliation with larger concerns? Then there are the sites that use a product or service or publication name as the domain name instead of the parent corporation. Fine, if users have full knowledge of the background of the product or service or publication, but not so fine if you still have questions about the vendor as a company or institution.

The absence of easily and universally accessible contact information on Web sites is more than an inconvenience to users. In e-commerce dealings, the absence can be a deal breaker. Users start to worry about why this vendor won't supply the most basic information about itself. Suddenly, those ancient, atavistic fears start rising from the id, fears of the unreality of shopping in a world with no shops. Suspicions run rampant "Hmmm. They want my address shipping AND billing not to mention my credit card number, but when I ask the simplest question like 'Who are you and where are you? ... Hmmm."

Even in the relatively benign worlds of dot-edus and dot-govs, the lack of specific contact information can irritate searchers. Many monster Web sites with hundreds and thousands of pages have a Contact section, but only one for the entire institution. One assumes that people will want to get in touch with specific departments or subsidiaries or subagencies or on-campus institutes. A post office box number, city, state, and ZIP code for an entire institution just doesn't cut it.

Oh, and don't you just love the sites, particularly dot-govs, where you get down to the specific level, the specific office, the specific bureaucrat you need to reach, you click on their contact information and get a phone number with no area code or a mail code with no street address? ("Well, Postal Person, I think it's in the nation's capitol somewhere, but you'll know it when you see it because the office door will have a big A384 on it...I think.") I remember one site which gave me all the information I needed at the sub-sub-sub-page level except for the ZIP code. To get that one element I had to forage all the way back up to the parent agency.

So what's all this got to do with information professionals? Well, we know that sites should contain that basic kind of information. We know the way that information should be tagged nothing cute, just the most common language possible ("Contact"). We know where it should appear on the top or side of every page, a quick click away. We also know that, if kept standardized and universally available, it would be an easy matter for some Net Newbie or some "golden oldie" that wants to improve their products and processes to skim through the open Web on a regular basis and give us a useful, complete set of institutional directories.

How about it? Others complain about the Web. We fix it. Others kick and cuss. We get out and push. We're the Web version of the Navy's Seabees, "The difficult we do immediately. The impossible takes a little longer." Solutions 'R' Us.

Right?! Damn straight! And besides, when it comes to building industrial strength Web sources, you go to the people who know best, the people who were online before online was online. Info pros! When it comes to the basics, the solid stuff, the Web is ours, and what we own, we keep in working order. It's a dirty job, but someone's got to do it. 
Barbara Quint's e-mail address is
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