Although written to entice “non-techie librarians” to check out the “new world” of the web, I think others may get a kick out of it too. When this was written very few libraries had public internet computers. We’ve come a long way in 17 years.
Getting the best toys: WWW and Mosaic
Originally published in Technicalities, March, 1994
There is an old line that you may have seen on bumper- stickers: “He who dies with the most toys wins.” Some would describe that as a typical masculine trait, and perhaps it is. It may also be a librarian’s typical trait, since most of us are serious collectors, both personally and professionally. Regardless of whether we collect new toys in the rest of our lives, it is important to keep up with the new toys or tools in the Internet. Even if you’ve never heard of WWW or Mosaic or similar tools and services, stick with me; don’t let the strange looking “call numbers” put you off, as they are actually much clearer than the usual Dewey or LC classification numbers.
The three basic tools of the Internet are usually described as email, ftp, and telnet. We use email to communicate with each other, either individually or to groups through LISTSERV and similar programs. We use ftp to retrieve files, including programs, texts, and other types of information. Telnet allows us to connect to another account and to use the services of that account; the most common usage of telnet for most of us is to connect to another library’s online catalog. All of these services follow the “client-server” model, where a client program on our net-connected computer connects to a server program on another net-connected computer in order to get some type of information. In email, we often have a local mail program that connects to a mail server that sends the mail on to its destination. A LISTSERV or similar program is also a server, one that takes a message from a client and distributes copies to multiple recipients. The ftp service is similar, in that we log into a remote server that has files available for us to retrieve. It provides the service of organizing, indexing and delivering those files to us. Telnet is similar in that we connect to a remote port on a computer and use whatever services are available. The other well-known and highly used type of telnet service is Gopher, a specific protocol that allows you to search through nested menus to find information or services at a multitude of local or remote sites. Next time you read some techie-hype about client-server models, don’t be put off, since you really understand it already. Just wade through the chaff and try to sort out the useful information about the service being discussed.
Acronym Warning: Beware! Here be acronyms galore!! If you have used Gopher before, WWW and Mosaic are similar in concept, but much more sophisticated in development and appearance. WWW (or W3) has been under development on the nets for several years, but has only become widely used within the last year. The abbreviation stands for the World Wide Web of information servers that use the WWW protocol. All of the WWW servers use HTML (Hypertext Markup Language); you may have previously used some Hypertext applications on a PC or a Hypercard Stack on a Mac. Hypertext allows you to jump between linked points in a document. WWW takes that a step further by allowing the links to point to other remote servers or files, all transparently to the user. It also allows the use of both small (thumbnail) graphics in a text block and large graphics to which the thumbnails point. All of these images, whether text or graphics, can be displayed on the client program on your local computer.
All Web servers are addressed by means of a URL, or Uniform Resource Locator. This reference is analogous to an expanded ISBN for books, as it points not only to a particular WWW server, but also can point to exact documents, pages, and sections of pages on the server. URLs can also define other resources, such as gopher servers, ftp archives, and so forth, but have become the standard way of referring to Web resources. For example, the URL for the latest FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions document) on WWW is http://siva.cshl.org/boutell/www_faq.html.
This may look something like an Internet address, since that is a part of it. I’ll explain it: http is yet another acronym, referring to the Hypertext Transfer Protocol. The :// sets off the actual address, that of a machine named siva.cshl.org, a directory named boutell, and a particular file named www_faq.html The .html extension on the file name indicates that it is encoded in the Hypertext Markup Language, which means that it includes internal and/or external links to related information. Your WWW client will connect to that machine, switch to the appropriate directory, and transfer the relevant document for display on your screen. If you choose one of the links, it will then proceed to jump to the appropriate place to give you more information. Just as your Internet email address contains no blanks, ever, the URL also contains no blanks, ever.
Well, what does all this stuff mean to us in libraries? Just as many libraries have quickly learned the value of Gopher as a tool to find information on a multitude of topics, today we’re starting to find the same information, plus much additional information, with a WWW browser. Remember, the server is a WWW server, and we need a WWW client, or browser, to access the resources on the servers. The two best known clients are Mosaic, developed by the National Center for Supercomputing Applications at the University of Illinois in Urbana, and Cello (which I assume means something exciting like Cornell Electronic Law Library Organizer, but even their WWW site doesn’t tell), developed by the Law School at Cornell University. Although both do the job, I greatly prefer the look and feel of Mosaic, and will refer to the Mosaic client from here on. The Mosaic client is available for Macintoshes, Microsoft Windows, and XWindows, free from the NCSA over the nets. The Cello browser is also free from the developers at Cornell via the Internet. Installing these applications is not as easy as installing a new tax program or game on your PC, but those who are experienced with installing network software shouldn’t have too much trouble; you may have to obtain some new drivers or graphics applications as well, but these are also available free. Both of these packages are still undergoing rapid changes and development, so what I tell about Mosaic now may be changed by the time you read this.
Describing Mosaic is much like describing a great meal or a wonderful person: almost impossible for the majority of us. You really have to experience it yourself to fully appreciate it. But, I’ll try anyway; apologies if any of this sounds like marketing hype, as it is not (not only do I have no vested interest in the things I’m describing, they are free). When you get Mosaic you will have some Home Pages already listed in it for you to try out. Each server has a Home Page that describes the services it provides, much like the top menu on a Gopher server. However, the Home Pages are attractive, use readable fonts, and often include some thumbnail graphics; each represents the design philosophies and personality of its developer. Some words in the document will appear in blue type instead of black. If you point to one of the blue words the arrow will change to a finger icon and allow you to push that ‘button’. The server will then either jump to the relevant part of the document, jump to another document on the same server, or connect you to a different server to get the needed information. This all happens because a Hypertext link has been embedded in the document, invisible to you except for the blue text, and the link takes you to the next point to retrieve the information you request. You can quickly jump from one location to another, as needed, to track down the information you need.
If this all sounds rather mystical or strange, think of a typical reference search. We start with an encyclopedia, perhaps, and find an article to give us some information. That article contains a cross reference to related information, so we jump to a different volume and page of that set of books. At that point we find a citation to a book that may have more information, so we go to the catalog to track down the book, go to the shelf to get it, and then browse through it. That may lead to another reference to another name, a journal article, or other needed information. All of us are familiar with this type of running around, tracking things down, finding documents, and so forth. WWW servers do the same thing without requiring us to move from in front of our workstations, as the links are made by the servers and the information is brought to us. There is really no substitute for trying it out for yourself.
By now, you’ve probably realized that when you started the reference search in the encyclopedia there was a logical organization to the volumes, plus an index in the back; how does that work on the nets? Well, it isn’t quite the same, but there is a new tool that attempts to bring some order to the Web servers around the world. A professor at the University of Colorado, Boulder, has compiled a central registry of Web servers called The Mother-of-all BBS at the url http://www.cs.colorado.edu/homes/mcbryan/public_html/ bb/summary.html, and a corresponding index to it called World Wide Web Worm, or WWWW http://www.cs.colorado.edu/home/mcbryan/WWWW.html. This provides an excellent place to begin a subject search on the Web, although other central points are also useful as well. One of the convenient features of Mosaic is the ability to build Hot Lists of sources that you want to return to in the future. These work much like Bookmarks in Gopher clients. The current version of Mosaic doesn’t allow direct printing of documents, although it does provide for saving documents to your local disk, which you can later import into your word processor for editing and/or printing. As Mosaic continues to develop, many more features will be added. I also expect to see commercial versions on the market any day, which will undoubtedly fill in some of the gaps in the free versions that are available now.
OK, now that we’ve waded through a bushel or two of acronyms and a bunch of techie information, what kind of stuff can we find on the Web? I’ll describe just a few of my favorite resources out of the hundreds I’ve seen from the thousands that are out there. The Global Network Navigator is a service developed by O’Reilly Publishers, producers of some of the best Internet and Unix related books. You can reach this service at http://www.ora.com/cgi-bin/ora/aboutgnn/reg in order to register and begin to explore their many services, some for free and some for a fee. ANIMA: Arts Network for International Media Applications, http://wimsey.com/anima/ANIMAhome.html, has a wide variety of interesting art images and other poetic and media services available; one is a database of poetry fragments being developed from user contributions, called Poetus Interruptus. For the folks interested in soccer, there is a server with up to date information on the status of World Cup USA ’94 , the international soccer championship that will be in the USA this summer, at http://www.cedar.buffalo.edu/~khoub-s/wc.94.html. It has images and very detailed statistics on the teams, their records so far, scheduled games in the US, and so forth; it is updated regularly by a dedicated soccer fan. When I last checked, the information was less than 24 hours old. Another fascinating database of images is a collection from the Art History Project of Australian National University http://www.ncsa.uiuc.edu/SDG/Experimental/anu-art- history/home.html. Included are hundreds of images from ancient Rome and Greece, Pei’s works in Hong Kong, and many other interesting images and texts.
For the legally inclined, check out the home of Cello, the Legal Information Institute at Cornell University http://www.law.cornell.edu/lii.table.html. They have the latest supreme court decisions within 24 hours of issuance, complete copyright laws of the USA, the full text of the Brady Handgun Control act, and many other current resources that patrons are always looking for the minute they are released. This rapid dissemination of current information via WWW and Gopher servers is one of the greatest benefits of net access for librarians. For your daily dose of fun, try checking out the new cartoons created each weekday by Doctor Fun from http://sunsite.unc.edu/Dave/drfun.html. Finally, for art that is old and classic, try theLibrary of Congress Vatican Exhibit at http://www.ncsa.uiuc.edu/SDG/Experimental/Vatican.exhibit/Vatican.exhibit.html.
Previously librarians have had to learn how to use a variety of tools to browse the nets, including ftp, gopher, telnet, archie, veronica, and so forth. Mosaic packages all of these types of access into one interface. Simply plug in a gopher URL such as theMother Gopher’s gopher://micro.umn.edu:70/1 and start gophering. To do a Veronica search, put in her URL gopher://veronica.scs.unr.edu:70/11/veronica. Note that the URLs may include information to get you past the main menus of the servers, and can even take you right to a particular page or service on a gopher, too. Mosaic, Cello, the Web, and related services may indeed be the “killer applications” that will really bring libraries into the active reference use of the Internet. I’ll write more about the Web and some of the services in future columns, so please send any of your favorite resources to me.