If you were born after the Nixon resignation, this article will probably be old news. If, however, you can remember the Beatles and Elvis Presley, there is a reasonably good chance you may not be familiar with subject directories on the Web. While virtually every teacher who uses the Internet knows how to use a search engine, they may not have ever used a subject directory, even though their students almost certainly do.
It is important to begin by knowing the difference between search engines and subject directories. Subject directories are used to find broad topics, current events, organization or business homepages, or when you are just starting your research. A subject directory organizes its database of Web sites into subject categories. Unlike search engines, subject directories have been created by real people who have searched the Web, selected appropriate sites, evaluated them for their usefulness, and then organized them by category or by subject. Sites included in a subject directory are usually annotated, and often the compilers of the directory rate the sites, which let you know how relevant the site is. Since creating a directory by hand is so much more time consuming than using a computer program to collect sites, subject directories are much smaller than and not quite as current as search engines.
Also unlike search engines, which allow you to search for Web sites using keywords, in many subject directories you search by browsing. The Web sites included in a subject directory are organized into broad subject categories. You locate the sites you want by working your way from a broad topic to a progressively narrower one. For example, to learn about the availability of disabled student services, you could go to Yahoo, select the "education" link, and then drill down through "disabilities at," "college support and resources," and receive a list of 24 sites specifically devoted to the topic. The results, while much smaller than what you would get with a search engine like Google, have been reviewed for quality by a live human. Hopefully, you are trading quantity for quality.
LookSmart, http://www.looksmart.com, claims to be the global leader in Web directories, with 31 directories spanning dozens of countries and languages. There's more of an emphasis on reviewing sites, as opposed to just listing them. For example, when you select "humanities," you are taken to a page with the categories of guides & directories, academic programs, classics, communications, cultural studies, design arts, folklore & mythology, history, and languages. By selecting the directory category, "history by subject," you are presented with subcategories ranging from African-American to economic to military to women.
Working on the premise that the small paid editorial staffs at commercial directory sites (such as Yahoo and Looksmart) can't keep up with the ever- expanding Web, The Open Directory Project aims to produce a comprehensive directory of the Web using an army of volunteer editors. The result is "The Internet Brain," http://www.dmoz.org. While like the directories described above, you have to sometimes slog your way through commercial ads. It is, however, worth the effort since you have access (the last time I checked) to just under 4.5 million sites in 590,000 categories by well over 60,000 editors.
While librarians often use search engines themselves, some say that the public has become too reliant on Web searches, which may not be the appropriate way to find what they need. For instance, Google is a fine place to search for something specific, like biographical information. But for general information, such as on literature or oceanography, subject directories may be much better. Two of the sites favored by librarians are the Librarians' Index to the Internet, lii.org, and the Internet Public Library, ipl.org.
In sum, it is not a case of whether subject directories are better than search engines. Each is designed to achieve a specific purpose. Because directories are selected and reviewed by humans, they tend to be more appropriate when just getting started in your research. They give you the opportunity to browse and get familiar with the topic; then, when you have an idea of the specific information you are looking for, you are prepared to make the most efficient use of conventional search engines.
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