Vol.8, No. 6 • June 2000
Marylaine Block: A Librarian with All but Walls
by Gary Price, Webmaster
George Washington University, Virginia Campus Library

It is very difficult to describe the work of Marylaine Block in just a few words. She does it all.

Briefly, Marylaine is an Internet trainer, a guru, the editor/author of an interesting and important e-zine (ExLibris), and Webmaster for a couple of popular and useful Web site guides (Neat New Stuff I Found this Week and BookBytes). While that might suffice for most people, she also contributes a weekly column to Foxnews.Com.

The aforementioned services and writing responsibilities are all part of Marylaine’s company, Marylaine.Com. A visit to her site [] will leave you both informed and stimulated, as she is not afraid to share her opinions and beliefs with readers.

I had the opportunity to conduct the following interview with Marylaine (via e-mail) over the course of about a week earlier this year.


GP: Marylaine, before we discuss the many projects you are involved in these days, would you share a bit about your background and professional experience?

MB: I got my BA in English at Northwestern University and got my MA in American Civilization at the University of Iowa — which qualified me to become a secretary.

Happily, it was for the film studies program at Iowa, so at least I got to see lots of movies. After my son was born, I worked for a doctor friend as a secretary, and when I started hating that, it suddenly occurred to me that since I had spent all my life matching people up with books that were perfect for them, maybe — duh — I should be a librarian. I got my MA in library science at the University of Iowa and then became reference librarian and later associate director for public services at St. Ambrose University Library, where I worked for 22 years until I decided to become a writer and Internet trainer full-time.

GP: Why did you choose librarianship as a career?

MB: I didn’t really start writing until 5 years ago, so I didn’t see that as a career option in 1976. To continue teaching would have required me to either get a Ph.D. to do it at the college level, or to re-certify to do it at the high school level. I really didn’t want to do either of those, even though in a real sense, teaching is what I have always done, including when I was a librarian. It was the idea of bringing people together with books for a living that made me opt for librarianship, although that was based on the extremely limited idea I had at that time about what librarians did.

The Internet

GP: When did your work on the Internet begin?

MB: I started Best Information on the Net [BIOTN, a Web site directory, currently maintained at St. Ambrose University, but known in 1995 as Where the Wild Things Are].

GP: Your “Neat New Stuff I Found This Week” compilations are very popular in the information community to assist information professionals in locating and accessing new materials. How do you do it?

MB: It doesn’t take all that long to find and sample the new stuff. It’s a lot like skimming book review journals to decide what to order. We don’t look at everything there, either; we look at what’s in our collection development areas. And even there, sometimes we don’t need to read past the first line of the review to know this is not for us. That first line may tell us it’s too academic for our collection, or too juvenile, too unauthoritative, etc.

GP: What methodologies do you use when deciding to add a site to your “Neat New...” compilations?

MB: From a range of noncommercial sites with substantial content, I always pick a couple of fun sites, several sites of serious reference value, and a few sites that meet ordinary human needs. Lest I fall into the trap of tailoring a collection to my own personal interests, I always try to make sure there’s something there for people who are NOT like me — children, men, dog-lovers, businessmen, stay-at-home moms, people of other cultures and religions.

[You can read more about how Marylaine creates her compilations at]

GP: Did you have any idea that the Internet would be as important as it seems to be? Is it living up to your early expectations?

MB: My first reaction to the Net was “Oh, wow!” It still is. The amount of free, high-quality information on the Net, even now that commercial forces are trying to take it over, is still mind-boggling. It allows libraries to escape the limitations of their budgets and spending priorities. Hardly any library, for instance, can afford to represent the works of all artists, because art books are so ungodly expensive, but the Net supplements our collections beautifully.

What surprised me is that I thought I was creating my site just for St. Ambrose. I didn’t realize that if you’re doing good work on the Net, people all over the world will find it and use it.

GP: What about 5 years from now? How will the Internet and librarians’ use of it change?

MB: Considering the rate at which new technologies are coming along, I don’t think anybody can predict 5 years into the future — which makes it awfully hard for libraries to plan their spending. There are some trends that are likely to change how we do things. More and more state governments are providing full-text databases for their citizens by way of the Net, so I think it’s a fair bet that we’ll be using the Net much more as a delivery vehicle and less for Internet content in and of itself.

It’s likely our access to the Net will be much more portable and omnipresent. Donald Norman, in The Invisible Computer, talks about how we will no more talk about computers than we talk about motors, because like motors, they will have been incorporated into specific appliances like cell phones and PalmPilots and God knows what else.


GP: These days the words entrepreneur and infopreneur are often heard together. You took the plunge and formed your own company. Could you give us a bit of background?

MB: My company is me: My primary business is writing; the weekly column I write for Fox News Online, “Observing US,” provides the base income that allowed me to quit my job and take the plunge.

Since I was well-known for my work on the Net and had already done some workshops and speaking engagements, I figured I could continue to do Internet training as well. But since I had (cheerfully) left Best Information on the Net for my colleagues to maintain, I needed to do something to remind the library community that I was available.

That’s why I started publishing a weekly e-zine, ExLibris, where I share some of my ideas, questions, and worries about librarianship and the Internet. I also moved Neat New Stuff I Found This Week — the only part of BIOTN where I let my personality leak through — to It already had regular followers in the library community who followed me to my new site. On every issue, I link to my resume, with a reminder that I’m available for hire.

GP: Any suggestions for others who want to “give it a go” alone?

MB: Be independently wealthy or able to live cheap. (I know how to live in graduate student squalor, and my mortgage is under $300.) Have at least one solid source of income and money in the bank before you make the move. Have a network of contacts and possible clients. Join relevant professional organizations to make more contacts, and invest the money up front to go to conferences and make yourself known. Build a Web page that provides useful information free of charge to your target clientele and use it to promote your services. And have a really good accountant.

GP: A moment ago you mentioned your e-zine, ExLibris. Could you tell us what this project is all about?

MB: I think the greatest talent I have, other than recognizing good stuff when I see it, is asking good questions, and that is what I do in ExLibris. I ask about the side effects of our technology, about how we train people to use it, about trends affecting our profession, and attacks upon it from ideologues, and about how we balance our obligations toward free expression and serving the expressed needs of the clientele who pay our salaries. I’ve conducted my own series of guru interviews. Another thing I’ve started doing there, because virtually nobody else does it, is a series called “In Praise of Y,” in which I call attention to unusually valuable contributions particular people and organizations have made to our profession.

And of course I proved that by taking a substantial pay cut to go into business on my own. I’m enjoying having ExLibris for my personal soap box, to pass on some of the things I know and believe about libraries, books, research, and the Internet, and I’ve been gratified by the response it’s gotten. It’s obvious that many other librarians are struggling with the same kinds of issues I am talking about.

GP: Do you have any plans to charge for your resources?

MB: No. I strongly believe in keeping information free, and it’s people like librarians, who have an institutional commitment to information, who will do it. However, if Fox or some other publishing organization were willing to pay me to do NeatNew from their site or for their newspapers, I’d cheerfully move it. I also won’t take advertising just because I think it compromises the appearance of objectivity. Not that I don’t have my biases, but I put them up front. The positions I take may not always be right, but I want people to be confident it’s not because I was paid to espouse them.

Internet Trainer

GP: In your role as an Internet trainer, what are a few things people (both end users and professionals) do not understand about the Internet as an information resource?

MB: I’d like to answer the question without implying that most of our users are defective. The things that stand between them and information are matters of training.

1. They don’t understand what they can and cannot expect to find on the Net — that some kinds of information are not free, that other kinds are more reliably found in books and journal articles.
2. Many users assume that if they don’t find what they’re looking for on the only search engine they try, it doesn’t exist, and if they don’t think the answers exist, they won’t persevere. They don’t understand that different search engines will find different things, and that the way they ask the question matters.
3. Many don’t have a clear enough idea of what they’re looking for. When they get 500,000 hits on a search on abortion, they often don’t know how to narrow it down.
4.  Many users have a kind of magical faith that if it’s on a computer, it must be true. They’ve said to me, “But if it wasn’t true, THEY wouldn’t let it be on the Net,” and I have to tell them there is no THEY, that nobody’s in charge, and that there is no IQ requirement for running a Web site.
GP: Why can’t users find what they are in search of? What is wrong — if anything — with the way people search for information on the Internet?

MB: Mostly people don’t find what they need because the system is complex beyond their imagining. They don’t think they need help, and they prefer to learn systems by playing around with them. They think they should be able to type a question and get an answer.

This is an unreasonable request. But as George Bernard Shaw said, “The reasonable man adapts to his world. The unreasonable man insists on forcing the world to adapt to him. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”

Designers and professional users of search systems are “reasonable men” — people who read instruction manuals and help pages, who take to Boolean logic as if it was chocolate. That makes for a poor fit between the search systems and their unreasonable users.

GP: What can the major search tools do better? What do they currently do well?

MB: I think the best search systems push users to define their topics better. Ask Jeeves, for instance, does what any librarian would do — it comes back with a series of questions: did you mean _____? or _________? In doing so, it not only refines the query, it gently educates the user about ambiguities in their questions.

The other system I like is the template form used by databases like ERIC or HotBot’s advanced search screen. It nudges users to add terms to their initial statements. A self-evident system like this is much more useful than the help button most users will ignore.

Some other systems that provide helpful nudges are Excite, which suggests some terms drawn from the search results that you could combine with your original search statement. I giggled when it suggested, for my search on “Marylaine,” the term “sainthood.”

Northern Light provides the subdivided subject folders. HotBot, of course, allows you to use Direct Hit to see what other people have chosen. And I very much like the way Excite allows you, when you find something that exactly matches your needs, to click on “More articles like this.” Having the help hints embedded within the results like that is very useful.

GP: Are we overlooking browsing these days? Do you discuss browsing in your training sessions?

MB: In any training sessions, I always point out the difference between searching the entire Net with a search engine and browsing or searching within a carefully selected subject directory. When I work with faculty, who rarely have enough time to learn the Net, I always tell them, “You’re right, you don’t have time, but the good news is, you don’t have to; what you need to do is learn to use one search engine well, and learn one or two reliable subject directories within your field of study. Count on the experts in your field to have chosen much of what you will need.”

GP: It’s one thing to have an Internet connection, it’s another thing to know how to use it. Should Internet training at some level be required education in schools?

MB: I think many schools are teaching information literacy already, and I think it should be required. Librarians are probably best equipped to teach it because we understand the structure of information — what books do well, what journals do well, and what the Internet and CD-ROM programs and other media do well. We are also the ones who understand how to evaluate information. I think we should teach the teachers, in collaboration with teachers who already have strong Internet skills.

But this requires both teachers and librarians to have the released time it takes to learn the systems. Too often, from what I hear, school administrators plug in the equipment and leave it for the teachers to figure out for themselves.

That said, though, I do not embrace the idea of heavy computer use in elementary schools. I want kids to learn to read really well first, because books and the Internet create two different kinds of mind. Books teach sequential, linear narrative and reasoning; the Internet lends itself to a more creative but more slapdash, collage sort of approach, where you take a bit of information here, a bit of information there, and jumble it all together. I want them to learn linear reasoning first.

Education and Skills

GP: Marylaine, what are some of the qualities an information professional should have today?

MB: Curiosity. A flexible mind that understands that any issue can be addressed from a variety of viewpoints. Being good at word games, since there’s no way you can reliably find things without the ability to think of all the possible OR words. The ability to ask good questions. A genuine interest in the people whose questions you’re answering. The best librarians are determined to find out, convinced that answers exist, and able to manipulate systems to force them to divulge those answers.

GP: Is this ability “to manipulate systems” even more crucial in the Internet age?

MB: It always was. If anything, it was even more critical when you had to guess right about the subject heading to use when you went to a Wilson index. You HAD to be able to think Stonehenge OR England-Antiquities OR Druids OR Technology-History to be able to bring forth items related to that search. You also had to understand, as your students did not, that you needed to consult multiple volumes of an index, or even multiple indexes. You needed to be able to think of where else the information might be — if your library had nothing about greyhound racing, for instance, you could give people the phone number and address of the greyhound racing association. The only difference the Internet age makes is that the information is MORE likely to be there, and search engines are likelier to retrieve it by appropriate keywords; if anything your problem will be narrowing and evaluating your search results.

GP: And the “ability to ask good questions?” Can this be accomplished in an e-mail/Web reference situation?

MB: One question I used to ask patrons before I started demonstrating a search for them is “If you could find the perfect article on your topic, what would it be titled?” That helped them to define what they were looking for and helped me to understand it. And if you’d ever answered a reference question about what the song is that goes like this — bum bum biddee biddee bum bum BUMM — you’d see very quickly some of the limits of online reference. Also any kind of question that requires people to see graphics — charts, pictures in color — can only be done with an e-mail or fax or Web component added on.

GP: Can the skills needed to do a good job be taught? Would you change anything about library education?

MB: I don’t know if they can be taught, but they can be modeled.

I would certainly expect would-be librarians to do a practicum and watch good reference librarians or good catalogers in action and see what patrons want from their libraries. I’d also have at least one class talking regularly about the ethical and social issues we regularly confront — censorship vs. selection, accessibility, equitable allotment of our time and resources, etc.

Our Profession

GP: We spend so much time discussing technology these days. What are some of the non-technological challenges we face?

MB: Funding, of course. Learning to stop being possessive about our collections and start sharing them with other libraries — not only do our technologies make that more possible, they make our patrons expect that as the norm. (I can remember when interlibrary loan was a special privilege reserved for scholars alone; now that our patrons in the Quad Cities can see what other area libraries have, they assume that of course they should be able to borrow from those libraries too.)

Maybe the biggest, though, is self-respect. So many library schools are running away from the word “library,” as if there’s something ignoble about being a librarian rather than an information scientist. We shouldn’t be so busy seeking our technological future that we forget why we became librarians in the first place, and why people fall in love with libraries. The San Francisco Library found out the hard way that no matter what new toys we may offer our users, they still want to see books and magazines when they walk in the door. They still want story hours for their kids, and meeting rooms, and exhibits, and they still want somebody who will find Aunt Ollie’s ZIP code for them.

GP: Is the library/information profession doing the best job possible to market our knowledge, skills, and services?

MB: Yes and no. The people who use libraries respect what we do. The problem is that probably half the population either doesn’t use libraries at all, or only uses them in the most casual, cursory manner and doesn’t understand that we do more than warehouse books and videos.

We could do lots more with public programming to get people into the library in the first place, and more with in house displays so that once we get people in the door, they can see all the services we offer. Since main libraries are usually downtown, they should be at the heart of any plans for revitalizing downtowns.

GP: If we did a better job might it improve our status and even our salary?

MB: Truthfully, I doubt it. We’re competing with the misconception that everything is available free on the Internet, in an environment of organized opposition to paying taxes, AND we’re competing with that lingering image of little old ladies saying, “Shhh.” (When I did a column for Fox about the Dr. Laura controversy, Chris Hiers, Fox’s wonderful cartoonist, illustrated it with a lady in a bun cartoon. I gently bawled him out for it.)

But, you see, I don’t care. I think librarians have one of the greatest jobs in the world. What other job gives you an unlimited opportunity to satisfy your curiosity about the world, to talk and work with other people who care about books and words and ideas? I’m like a ballplayer who can’t believe people are willing to pay him to play a game he loves every day. I know plenty of people who make lots more money but hate the way they spend 40 hours a week, and I wouldn’t trade.

GP: You have been critical of Steve Coffman, a frequent writer for Searcher magazine, in several issues of ExLibris. Would you care to comment?

MB: I think the main thing I would say about Steve Coffman is that he’s an invaluable resource for values clarification. There is nothing we do that he accepts as a given; he asks us to justify ourselves, and he speaks anathema. Yet without question he is doing this in the name of giving better service to our patrons. I disagree with virtually everything he proposes, especially the idea of soliciting corporate funding, but he makes the air around him electric with thought. That’s worth something.

Final Thoughts

GP: When not at the computer what are some of your other interests?

MB: I read and write about the oddities of American life and culture. I read eclectically, about politics, law, history, pop culture, science, language, ethics.... Because I use it all in my writing, now when I’m reading in the middle of the day, I can justly say I’m working, and my books and subscriptions are deductible business expenses.

Other interests: rock music. My son and I edited a quote book of great lines from rock music; we couldn’t get a publisher for it, unfortunately, not because a book like this isn’t needed, but because none of the publishers wanted to deal with getting thousands of permissions.

Gary Price is a librarian at the Virginia Campus of George Washington University. He also compiles several Web-based Internet reference tools including direct search [] and Current Awareness using Internet Based Audio and Video [].

Marylaine’s Favorites
GP: As you know, Marylaine, I love a good list. To complete our interview how about the Marylaine Block Top 10 Sites, the I Could NOT Be Without ones?

MB: In the most literal sense,, since they pay my mortgage and food. It’s also a pretty good news source, though, so I use it for that as well. But as far as things I consult all the time, not necessarily in order of importance.

1. Best Information on the Net
Not because it’s the best index out there, but because I know exactly what’s on it, and what answers it will get me to.

2. Yahoo!’s new site announcements.

3. FastSearch and Google
Currently tied as my favorite search engines.

4. Jessamyn West’s Librarian.Net
A Web log in which she finds and links interesting and/or outrageous news about libraries, librarians, and books. She also keeps a great reading log.

5. About.Com
The best overall directory, in my opinion. Most of the guides are excellent — I especially like Chris Sherman, the Internet search guide. They provide a few carefully chosen links and write regular articles about their field of expertise and the net.

6. Tara Calishain’s Research Buzz
This also passes on great info about news items, search engines, technology, and software.

7. Danny Sullivan’s Search Engine Watch

8. Greg Notess’ Search Engine Showdown

9. FirstSearch
For when I need to check on the existence of books or read some full text articles.

10. Amazon.
For book reviews and title info as well as for online ordering.

For fun, I regularly check out Jon Carroll’s column at the San Francisco Chronicle []. Then there are the Arts and Letters Daily Review [] and SciTech Daily Review []. The last two both scan through hundreds of newspaper and magazine articles and book reviews every day and recommend a few.

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