FM Reviews
First Monday

FM Reviews

Marylaine Block (editor).
The Quintessential Searcher: The Wit and Wisdom of Barbara Quint.
Medford, N.J..: Information Today, Inc., 2001.
paper, 215 p., ISBN 1-573-87114-1, US$19.95.
Information Today: http://www.infotoday.com/

I must admit that when I first saw the title of this book I assumed it was about Internet searching in general, freely available to anyone with an Internet connection - no doubt because that is an activity which I most readily associate with the term 'searching'. But as I began to read, the truth dawned: the 'searching' of the title refers to online library database searching, expensively available to librarians only, on behalf of clients who pay for the service.

So this is a somewhat specialised book, of value mostly to librarians, and the reader would need to belong to that inner circle to appreciate it fully. But, having said that, it does offer a tantalising glimpse into that specialised world, providing an insight into issues of information management and provision for those who, like myself, sometimes approach librarians for information, with varying degrees of frustration and success, or who use the (free) computerised database at my local library, and the (practically free) Internet as a research tool.

Barbara Quint herself - known in the trade as BQ - is also the subject of this book, since it consists mainly of extracts from her own writings. BQ is an American librarian, writer, editor and speaker, a dynamic individual who has made a difference to her profession. She is known equally for her outspokenness and her high ideals; she is full of common sense and clear-sightedness; she expresses herself with biting humour.

The book is edited by Marylaine Block, herself an American librarian, writer, speaker and Internet trainer. Block has grouped a selection of BQ's sayings from the years 1987-2000 into chapters: The Art of Searching, On Librarians, The Internet, Database Vendors, Scholarly Publishing, Random Musings, Words to Live By, BQ on BQ, and BQ's Fans Speak Out. The time-frame in itself is interesting, for enormous changes have taken place during the period, and librarians have not been left untouched by the widespread use of PCs, CD-ROMs, the Internet and online databases - even if some of them have desperately wanted to be.

The extracts are taken from BQ's writings in various newsletters, magazine articles and Web sites, including Information Today, Searcher, Database, Database Searcher, and Wilson Library Bulletin. As such they are mostly quite short, and tend, understandably, to contain the punchier sayings. This soundbite approach does become tiring quite quickly - it is a book to dip into, rather than read cover-to-cover. BQ's fondness for metaphors and analogies also becomes a little irritating if one reads too much at one sitting, for example the Aesop's Fable of the ant and the grasshopper to illustrate different types of online searcher.

One issue of general interest which BQ addresses is the impact free and efficient Internet searching has had on the expensive and sometimes inefficient databases supplied to libraries by database vendors. She criticises complacent vendors for not listening to end users' needs and consequently not supplying libraries with what they really want - even when that would mean higher revenues. One good example of where a commercial Web site wins hands-down is Amazon: BQ praises them for their 'sounds-like' interpretation of incorrect keywords (p. 89), whereby a book sale is clinched that would otherwise have been lost.

One frustration for me, as a relative outsider to the librarian's profession, is that the extracts are couched in rather general terms, and because of the way the book has been put together, similar points keep emerging. I'd have liked all of this balanced with some specific examples to illustrate the observations - there are some, as in the case of Amazon, but they are few and far between. Perhaps BQ doesn't write in such specific terms, but I'd have welcomed details of some case study searches, illustrating the various aspects of what the online librarian's work is about: starting with the client's question, detailing the search process with all its frustrating dead ends and unexpected leads, and ending with the delivery of the results.

But there are some pearls of wisdom here, as the book's subtitle suggests. I particularly like BQ's reminder for librarians who may have lost sight of their job description: "We ... librarians ... serve the minds of humanity" (p. 14), and her statement that librarians should "want to be part of the world's solutions, not the world's problems" (p. 32). I like her cut-the-crap approach to traditional attitudes, as in her satirical point that "customer loyalty" could just be a euphemism for "somnolent inertia" (p. 94). And, in an age where conservative reactionaries keep complaining that e-mail and newsgroups are ruining the written word, BQ claims that, on the contrary, "they have ... revived the art of writing as a popular skill" (p. 83). I'm inclined to agree with her there. - Dr. Gill Stoker End of Review

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Gurpreet Dhillon (editor).
Information Security Management: Global Challenges in the New Millennium.
Hershey, Pa.: Idea Group Publishing, 2001.
paper, 185 p., ISBN 1-878-28978-0, US$69.95.
Idea Group: http://www.idea-group.com/

Gurpreet Dhillon. Information Security Management: Global Challenges in the New Millennium.

With so many security books focusing on the technical aspects of the subject, it is interesting to come across a title that chooses to dedicate itself to the policy, ethical, and theoretical aspects of the discussion.

As an introduction and a statement of aims for his book, Dhillon asserts that, security, as we use the concept, must be broader in scope than just those implementation aspects that receive most of our attention. Here it is a given that a fundamental source of computer security problems come from focusing on just one view of security. As a solution the book proposes that security strategy must encompass a mutual understanding of the different roles and meanings, expectations and obligations that security invokes.

To these ends, the book is made up of 12 essays, with each essay taking a chapter, that cover topics and points of view addressing a broad scope of issues and challenges. Dhillon himself writes the first and last chapters, first setting the stage and briefly discussing the papers and topics chosen for the rest of the book, and in the last presenting conclusions and principles drawn for managing information security.

This is a book made up of individualistic essays, so there is not quite the sense of continuity that might be desirable, even though the essays were rewritten and resubmitted for the book. There are a wide variety of concepts introduced in the chapters, and most cover areas that are starkly different in theme, and are only loosely related if at all.

The focus is on theory and possibilities for the future, and as always with books of such nature, many of the arguments presented are introductory in nature, with the onus being on the reader to argue the point, rather than take what is being presented as given. The book at large follows this pattern: problems/interesting issues are shown to the reader and then the authors' solutions are then presented. Some of the articles are overlong and difficult to read, while others present clear cases and draw good conclusions. It is interesting to note the verbosity curve incrementing as an article moves further into the theory end of any given topic.

Without the first and last chapter to bind this book, it would literately be a collection of unrelated documents with the loose coupling that they all cover an aspect of 'security' in its broadest definition.

The last chapter does go some way towards correcting this lack of structure, however, as Dhillon takes the opportunity to identify the key lessons to be learned from the book at large. In the closing sections of the book, there are efforts bent on addressing issues and concerns within the complex field of information security, and that other efforts beyond the book are needed to advance knowledge in the area.

In summary, this book is neither an introductory book nor a state of the art review. It assumes a base knowledge of security from the readers, but does not present any major conclusions 'in the field' to them. It is instead a series of discussions that show ongoing progress in several security areas, and provokes those reading it into examining their own notions of security, as well as inviting them to internally debate some of the aspects of security that are being explored. At its cover price, this books seems expensive for a collection of papers debating topics that should be publicly argued in the academic community.

In conclusion, this book is a step on the road rather than either a start or a milestone. It presents possibilities in the area of security, but does not offer any major insights or new advances. To some, it might be considered a good book for those wishing to keep informed about information security, but begs the question whether these sort of updates might come with a cheaper price tag. - Andrew Butterly End of Review

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Bernardo A. Huberman.
The Laws of the Web: Patterns in the Ecology of Information.
Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2001.
cloth, 105 p., ISBN 0-262-08303-5, US$24.95.
MIT Press: http://mitpress.mit.edu

Bernardo A. Huberman. The Laws of the Web: Patterns in the Ecology of Information.

Writing a book about the laws of the World Wide Web might, at first, appear to be a self-defeating endeavour; after all, we are used to the idea that the Web is a conglomeration of various, mainly unrelated sites, created by millions of users in hundreds of different countries, covering all sorts of interests. Moreover, the infrastructure which supports them, the Internet itself, is broadly deregulated, so what laws can there be in cyberspace? Here is where this insightful short book comes into play. Huberman shows great competence in bringing to the surface the hidden regularities and organisation patterns that underlie the apparently chaotic distribution of Web links.

Ecosystem is a word used several times in the book - it denotes the close connection that Web social activities have with other, off-line patterns of human behaviour. The rules Huberman discusses are based on traditional statistical and mathematical techniques, such as the power law distribution, portfolio theory, and Zipf's law, all of which are also found in scientific fields as remote from information technology as linguistics and economics.

To corroborate the analysis, the author uses real-life case studies he and other colleagues have worked on; thus, for example, the section on surfing habits includes data relative to portals such as Yahoo!, Excite, and Lycos. The book reveals that a great deal of observation and thorough enquiries have been carried out in recent years and, in this respect, the amount of information in the short, merely 100-pages book is certainly impressive. Huberman uses a clear, accessible language to present his findings. This is an important fact, as dealing with variance, expected wait, number of clicks, and shortest paths could make for extremely tedious and uninspiring reading.

The Laws of The Web is divided into eight short chapters. The first sets the scene by explaining how regular patterns can be discerned among the apparent disorder in cyberspace; Huberman's goal, however, is more than simply showing such patterns. He writes:

"In this book, I intend to provide a description of the laws of the Web, along with their implications for the understanding of certain social phenomena and the design of better mechanisms for accessing information. While doing so, I also want to explain the methodology by which these theories are derived, for it offers a novel way of addressing complex problems in social dynamics."

Subsequent chapters go into more detailed by taking into consideration the distributions of the number of pages per site and of links from one site to other sites; by assessing statistically the clicking habits of users when browsing within sites; and by looking at the common phenomenon of Internet congestion. The last chapter deals with the implications that online behaviour as described previously can have on e-commerce business activities, and touches on the issue of branding.

While Huberman's book might not be a definite compendium of the laws that govern cyberspace (can there be such a thing?), it undoubtedly represents a major contribution, perhaps the first of its kind, to a scientific approach to understanding human online interaction. It is well researched, authoritative and strikes a perfect balance between conciseness and completeness. Its usefulness cannot be stressed enough: anybody can benefit from the studies and methodologies presented here: Web developers, psychologists, information and communication specialists, educators, entrepreneurs. Look forward to more to come. - Paolo G. Cordone End of Review

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Linda Joseph.
Net Curriculum : An Educator's Guide to Using the Internet.
Medford, N.J.: CyberAge Books, 1999.
paper, 193 p., ISBN 0-910-96530-7, US$29.95.
Information Today: http://www.infotoday.com/

Linda Joseph. Net Curriculum: An Educator's Guide to Using the Internet.

This guide is ostensibly designed "for K-12 teachers, librarians, and computer/media specialists" (back cover), but is pitched at a very elementary level and is unlikely to be of much value for those already familiar with the subject area. Furthermore, critical guidance is lacking, particularly in the Web site listings, so the book is equally unlikely to be very useful to the Internet novice.

At 193 pages, it is rather a short book, and uses a large typeface, large illustrations and lots of white space to pad out the brief text. It often goes into unnecessary detail, wasting space on information that is likely to be irrelevant to most people; ten pages are devoted to a step-by-step guide to setting up a PPP connection for Windows 95 and Macintosh. These instructions are neither necessary nor sufficient, just generalizations on the obvious and easy points, lacking in detailed information on the potential difficulties.

An example of this absurdity is the section on attachments, the complete text of which states:

"You can share documents and photographs via e-mail by sending them as attached files. Since each e-mail program differs in the way it handles the attachments (some have no provision for them at all), you should read the instructions."

The recognition that users are best advised to read the instructions for the specific programs they use renders redundant much of the material in the book's seventy pages of appendices.

Typically, a whole page (p. 150) is taken up with simple instructions for using a proprietary program available for download on the Net, though anyone interested would simply go to the download site to find the instructions. However, the book fails to provide any critical evaluation of the program.

Chapter 2 consists of a list of Internet resources, which makes no claim to be comprehensive, but rather to provide a few starting points in various curriculum areas. However, it is largely uncritical, and the descriptions of the content are quite inadequate. For example, one listing (p. 29) reads in its entirety:

"Animation Grove (http://www.dgill.simplenet.com/timagemap.html). You will find really cute animal cartoons here."

This directory also fails to distinguish between sites belonging to educational institutions and those belonging to commercial organizations, so www.colgate.com/Kids-world/index.html and kidshealth.org are listed next to each other with no indication of the perspective or agenda of each site.

A list of URLs of some schools' homepages is provided (p. 156) so that aspiring Web designers can use them as examples, but Joseph provides no comments on them, so there is no indication of what design elements these sites are chosen to exemplify.

The book does have some good features. There is a fourteen-page HTML tutorial, which lists, explains and illustrates a few tags that are sufficient for the creation of a simple page, with a template available at www.cyberbee.com/schoolpage/school.html. And the CyberBee Web site has additional tie-ins and up-to-date hyperlinks to all of the sites listed in the book. However, these initiatives are not enough to redeem a book which, in its attempt to cover a lot of ground for a broad readership, fails to provide much of value to anyone. - Peter Beech End of Review

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Marc A Smith and Peter Kollock.
Communities in Cyberspace.
New York: Routledge, 2001, c.1999.
paper, 328 p., ISBN 0-415-19140-8, US$29.95.
Routledge: http://www.routledge-ny.com

Marc A Smith and Peter Kollock. Communities in Cyberspace.

Smith and Kollock have brought together a veritable smorgasbord of pieces here. The collection is split into sections described as "Identity", "Social order and control", "Community structure and dynamics" and "Collective action". Within each section different voices bring us perspectives within the general heading.

The nature of any collection such as this is that each writer brings something different - that's certainly the case here and the range of perspectives is fascinating and far from one-sided. Laura Gurak's contribution, "The promise and peril of social action in cyberspace: ethos, delivery and the protests over MarketPlace and the Clipper chip" is a well written, balanced analysis of online rhetoric and demonstrates how the speed of delivery and the ethos of online communities can lead to insularity and the speedy transmission of inaccurate information while also being used for valid political and social action.

The three contributions that form the Identity section each look at different elements of who we are online. Donath looks at identity and deception in the virtual community, Burkhalter discusses reading race online and Jodi O'Brien's piece on gender is a triumph.

If this book has a flaw it relates to the pace of the contributions. None are poorly written or researched but the way they are assembled seems to be unbalanced. I read the book twice to try and find the reason for this and can only suggest that the order of the contributions causes the problem. The middle section, two chapters on social order and control, are slower and denser that the chapters before and afterwards - in my view they should have been moved to the end as they actually bring together many of the other strands. But this isn't a major issue and the whole collection provides a valuable overview of some key online issues as well as being an excellent springboard for further reading on the subjects discussed.

As an introduction to the changing relationships between society and technology and how this interaction is constantly being reformed I would certainly recommend this book. - Nigel Gibson End of Review


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