Magazine article Computers in Libraries

Black, White, and Shades of Gray (Literature) on the Web

Magazine article Computers in Libraries

Black, White, and Shades of Gray (Literature) on the Web

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I've been thinking about all of those fringe Web sites out there as gray literature, and of how we can provide access to them.

You might be surprised to learn that the very first library conference I attended was the Second International Conference on Grey Literature. I was a special collections student (like most of my kind, I became an accidental systems librarian), and this was an area in which I was supposed to show some interest. For those of you who do not know, gray literature-things like pamphlets, handouts, and all the ephemera that usually wind up in the vertical or circular file-is on the fringe, informal, unpublished, and dare I say, invisible. I must admit to not recalling much from the conference itself, save the fact that most of the speakers had sophisticated foreign accents and invoked terms and theories that I had never heard in library school (and that I do not remember ever hearing again). But like many eager graduate students, I hoped for that singular original thought that would set me apart from my peers, and this is one of the few things I recall from that conference. "Isn't the Web just a huge pile of gray literature?" I thought. People were just beginning to call making a Web site "publishing," much more a stretch of the imagination then than it is now, and search engines were already full of flaws, giving corners of the new worldwide medium their first taste of invisibility, obscurity, and now, rarity. I wanted to uncover it all-discover, uncover, describe, and organize all the lost comers, piece by ephemeral piece.

That's Really Deep, Man

Well, as it turns out, not only was my goal a bit too lofty, but my original idea itself-that portions of the Web might suffer ultimate invisibility-was also unoriginal. In 1994 (a year before the conference), Dr. Jill Ellsworth had first coined the phrase "invisible Web" to refer to information content that was "invisible" to conventional search engines. As my career got off the ground, I found that this was only the first in a long series of so-called original thoughts; a little digging always seems to turn up someone older, smarter, and more eloquent than I to articulate something that I am trying so clumsily to describe. (This is why, as Alfred E. Newman taught us, stealing from one person is plagiarism, but stealing from several is research.) Just 3 years after the grass-roots explosion of the Web, people were concerned about how to uncover obscure portions of this equalizing medium. It would be a couple more years before some other forward-thinking organizations started pondering how to preserve them.

Now, Internet gurus refer to the so-- called "invisible Web" as the "deep Web," arguing (persuasively, I think) that Web content is not really hidden, it's just a little harder to get at. Sophisticated crawling techniques, new algorithms, and a little black magic are slowly getting at that deep content, exposing it to those who might otherwise never have found it. In the meantime, surface-level Web pages-- those simple little documents with quaint extensions like .html and .txt-are being sucked up by databases and search engines, making it seem as if the stuff that we see on the Web never existed as standalone documents, but always resided in the land of .asp, jsp, .cfm, and CGI. I wonder how an Internet world ever existed on the left-hand side of the question mark in those URLs.

Why Should Anyone Care?

So what does all of this have to do with providing access to special collections? Well, I continue to think about all of those fringe Web sites as gray literature, and of our goal to provide access to them. There are some new Internet services out there that I find intriguing, and I also have a couple of notions that might help to distribute our labor in providing uninterrupted, qualitative, and historical access to Web pages that libraries consider valuable additions to our culture. …

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