Foote brings sensibility and substance to Web creations

As high-tech a creation as the World Wide Web appears to be, what on-line users get to see on the Web is largely a function of a decidedly low-tech influence: human sensibility.

An example of that influence can be found in Steve Foote, a cataloguer in the Health Sciences Center Library who two years ago created what has become known as MedWeb, cited in the March 1996 issue of MacUser magazine as one of the Web's best sources of health sciences-related information.

Of MedWeb, MacUser said: "This long list from Emory University includes Web sites, newsgroups and mailing lists covering a wide range of medical areas--from AIDS to virtual reality in medicine."

Content is key

One of the main reasons that MedWeb is so well thought of is that Foote, who continues to administer MedWeb in addition to his regular duties, is picky about what he includes. His criteria for adding Web material to MedWeb are "that it be there two days in a row (and it's surprising how many things are not), and that it at least seems to be medical, and that it doesn't annoy me. Some items on the Web are just blatant ads for something like a self-published book on psychic surgery."

In addition to information on standard medical disciplines such as microbiology, pediatrics, toxicology and alternative medicine, MedWeb also includes categories such as conferences with calendars, bibliographies and writing guides, employment opportunities and the National Library of Medicine. The MedWeb address is: <>.

If the past five months are a reliable indication, Foote's judgment about what to include in MedWeb has been right on target. Since last September, what Foote calls "legitimate hits" to MedWeb (accesses to MedWeb sites) have increased by nearly 50 percent, from 45,000 hits in September to more than 70,000 in January. A likely contributor to that growth, Foote said, is a corresponding growth in the number of MedWeb's pointers, the term for items listed on MedWeb. (The name originates from the computer cursor, which bears the image of an arrow; the user points the arrow to the desired item and clicks to access it.) The number of pointers grew from slightly more than 6,000 in September to nearly 9,200 in January.

Marie Matthews, Emory's Webmaster in the Information Technology Division, isn't a bit surprised by MedWeb's skyrocketing popularity. "I think MedWeb is a clear demonstration of the value of providing strong content on the Web," Matthews said. "MedWeb doesn't have a lot of fancy graphics and it's not real flashy, but it continues to be one of the most heavily used Web sites on campus. I think that attests to the value of the information he is providing for people. Steve just does a tremendous job."

While Foote is pleased with the growth as an apparent indication that Web users are finding MedWeb useful, he also realizes that it can bring with it certain challenges, the biggest of which is the danger of overloading users with too much information that isn't particularly useful. "I think people who administer Web servers are really concerned about this," Foote said. "With the Web, the power of the press belongs to everyone, which is one of the reasons there's so much stuff and the reason that some people are predicting a kind of Web crash this year. As a result of that, I think it will winnow out some of the garbage and [the Web] will come back even stronger."

Library angst

While overseeing MedWeb is a relatively new responsibility for Foote, his history with Emory goes back more than two decades. After completing his undergraduate degree in English at Clemson University, Foote enrolled in Emory's former library science school (which closed 10 years ago). As a student he became familiar with the Health Sciences Library by working there as a shelver. He eventually joined the library staff as a full-time cataloguer in 1979.

Foote's library career happened rather spontaneously, he said, and it is a somewhat surprising phenomenon given his attitude toward libraries as an undergraduate at Clemson. "I always had an adversarial relationship with the library in college," he said. "They had a very early form of automated circulation, and every time I went to register for classes, they said I had all these overdue books checked out that I'd never heard of. I finally said, `Okay, here's a list of these books. Would somebody come with me and see if these are on the shelves?' And they always were. My ID must have been keyed in wrong or something."

That frustrating experience, however, did not keep Foote from entering library school and beginning a library career. "I think libraries are really quiet places that tend to attract the insane as customers," he said. "There are a lot of very eccentric people, myself included, who work in libraries. They probably couldn't make it in the real world because they're too odd."

Despite his job title of cataloguer, Foote spends far less time cataloguing than he once did, mostly as a result of the computer revolution. A huge chunk of his time is spent providing support for computer users attempting to gain access to the OVID and EUCLID on-line catalogues of library holdings. And while virtually all of his MedWeb work has been done after work hours, the rapidly growing popularity of the Web in general, and of MedWeb in particular, is sure to change the character of his job once again.

--Dan Treadaway

Return to the February 26, 1996 contents page