A Pair of Web Pathfinding Gems

Though we rely heavily on search engines these days, sometimes a good “old fashioned” human edited directory is a better choice for helping us locate high quality information on the web.

I’m currently working on a book about how to conduct research on the web, (to be published by O’Reilly next year) and I had a chance to really look closely at a couple of librarian-built web directories that I’ve used for years. Looking at them in a new light reminded me of how valuable these resources are.

So, even though you’ve probably got your own favorite web directory sources (perhaps Yahoo Directory or the Google version of the Open Directory Project, I encourage you to pay these old favorites another visit.

Internet Public Library

The Internet Public Library (IPL) began in 1995 as a graduate seminar project in the School of Information and Library Studies at the University of Michigan. In some ways, it still retains the flavor of a public library—in addition to a hierarchical subject directory, it includes sections for “Ready Reference” (encyclopedias, dictionaries, almanacs and so on), the Reading Room (links to web sites that provide access to the full text of books, magazines and newspapers), and KidSpace and TeenSpace (resources for kindergarten through high school students).

It also has a collection of “Pathfinders“—guides to both print and online sources for topics ranging from heart disease to Greek mythology. The Internet Public Library has a far smaller collection of sites than Open Directory Project or Yahoo Directory, but the web sites included are high quality.

The Internet Public Library also comes with an “Ask A Question” service, supported by students in graduate library science and information classes, by professional librarian volunteers and by IPL contributors. The idea is to help library students practice how to provide reference services, especially in an email environment. Allow three days for a response, since this is staffed by students and volunteers.

Librarians’ Internet Index

The Librarians’ Internet Index (LII) was founded in 1993 and is maintained by librarians, in this case a small staff supported by funds from the California State Library system and the Washington State Library, and several dozen volunteer contributors, most of whom work in public, university or school libraries. It is organized into broad categories and then subcategories, as with most other web directories.

The summaries of the web sites included in the LII are more detailed than most directories, and includes useful cross-reference information. For example, the Politics category includes cross-referenced categories, such as “Activism” and “Notable People: Government”, indicated by bold type. Recent additions to the category are in a box on the right.

And take a look at each individual entry. If you click the magnifying glass icon to the right of the title, a pop-up box will display additional cataloging information about the site (all the topics within the LII in which the site is listed, when the site was added to LII, and so on). If you click the small box next to the magnifying glass, you can send a comment to the LII staff about the site (perhaps suggesting another category it should appear in or commenting on the description of the site). And clicking the envelope icon lets you email that site description to anyone.

Note also that below the description of the site is a list of the other categories in which this site appears. Unfortunately, this is not a complete list of all the categories; a better option is to click the magnifying glass icon to see all the places the site appears within LII.

One limitation of LII is that it is sometimes California and Washington-centric, reflecting its origin and the background of its contributors, who are librarians in California and Washington. There are a number of California-specific categories&mdashCalifornia: Travel, California: History, and so on&mdashfor which there is no LII equivalent for other states except Washington.

LII offers a weekly newsletter, New This Week, which contains all the entries added to the Index in the last seven days. You can receive the newsletter in email or via RSS feed by filling out the subscription form, or you can read the newsletter online.

Mary Ellen Bates is the principal of Bates Information Services, a research and consulting business based in Boulder, Colorado.

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