Economics Network CHEER Virtual Edition

Volume 9, Issue 1, 1995


Finding It On The Internet

Paul Gilster

Published by John Wiley and Sons, New York,1994 pp.
470. 16.95. ISBN 0-471-03857-1

Like Gilster's previous volume, The Internet Navigator, this book is aimed at the "ordinary" user, usually dialling in from home via a modem and often restricted to a slow text-only interface. If you are such a user, Gilster's detailed account of the features and foibles of Internet searching tools will increase your efficiency, help you avoid frustration and expand your knowledge to the limit of your phone bill. Gopher, for example, is dealt with in a clear and particularly detailed manner. However many CHEER readers will not be using such a connection, and if you are fortunate enough to be based at an academic institution, with a direct Internet connection, you should be thinking of installing a client such as WSGopher, or even running all your gopher searches from within Netscape (of which more later). Even so, Finding It On The Internet will be a useful companion, but you should bear in mind that you are not the main target audience.

Although it is clearly written and well laid out (a little too much BOLD for my liking but perhaps that's my British restraint) - this is not a book for complete beginners. If you are just starting out The Internet Navigator or Ed Krol's The Whole Internet are more appropriate. However, any beginner will rapidly discover the limitations and frustrations of browsing the net. There is a clear need for a guide which addresses searching and finding, undoubtedly the biggest real issue facing the serious user of the Internet despite the media focus on sleaze and security. On the flyleaf Gilster quotes Johnson "I know of nothing more pleasant, or more instructive, than to compare experience with expectation" In the case of searching on the Internet, the expectation often proves more pleasant than the experience, and Gilster's book is an attempt to put that right. He dives straight into Archie, not the most user-friendly of network tools, and in describing its many refinements, he almost makes you love it. But these days I can rarely get through to an Archie server, let alone use its more sophisticated options, and this is an example of the peril of writing books about the Internet. As Gilster says both the network and its navigational instruments are in their infancy and it's amazing how quickly these babies change and grow - you just can't fit them into clothes that were too big a few months ago. Thus Netscape, a World Wide Web browser spreading rapidly through the academic community is not mentioned by name and merely alluded to as "in the cards" (sic).

Gilster's book certainly provides an excellent opportunity for the experienced network user to fill in knowledge gaps and change sloppy habits. I found out a lot about Veronica, the Gopher search tool, and I look forward to trying out the newly-discovered switches and sophistications. But the 2 major problems I have found with Veronica are not mentioned. First there is no quality control - even with more complex limitations to your searches you can still come up with many "hits" which are useless - evening class schedules on another continent or a catalogue listing with no clue as to what is being catalogued and why. Secondly there seem to be huge inconsistencies in the way Veronica operates - no-one has ever satisfactorily explained to me why different sites produce such vastly different results - it seems that not only are they using different databases of sources but they use different default strategies, is this so? perhaps a reader knows. Whatever the truth, I think it is clear that Veronica, like Archie is a step on the road to good search tools and will be superseded by something more precise and consistent.

I must not give the impression that this book shuts its eyes to the shortcomings of the networks, it is refreshingly free of hype and introduces you to many of the glitches of mistaken strategies, unexpected results, network hang-ups and plain crashes. It is reassuring to see that the author documents many of the "failures" in his live examples so that the reader gets used to the idea that not everything on the networks runs strictly according to the manual (or even has a manual).

The sections on WAIS and World Wide Web (WWW) once again emphasis the text-only interface, and in the case of WAIS highlights why it is preferable to have a good WAIS client to hide some of the complexity, or better still to hide WAIS completely by integrating it into a client giving a choice of search and browse strategies. There is a useful section comparing the text-based WWW interfaces with the same pages viewed through Mosaic. Odd though that in a book dedicated to searching there is no mention of the new crop of web search engines such as:

ALIWEB - URL: http://web.nexor.co.uk/public/aliweb/aliweb.html [No longer seems to be functioning- Web Editor]
JumpStation - URL: http://www.stir.ac.uk/jsbin/js [No longer functioning- Web Editor]
WIDE WEB WORM - URL: http://www.cs.colorado.edu/home/mcbryan/WWWW.html [Now at http://www.goto.com/ - Web Editor]

Perhaps another illustration of the rapid development with which a book cannot hope to keep up.

Oddly enough I found the most interesting section of this book was the one dealing with email. Using search tools by email is not only possible, but in times of increasing network congestion and long waits for results from tools like Archie, it is sometimes preferable, even if you have a powerful machine with the latest client installed. Useful hints on finding an email discussion list (or listserv in the jargon) are also included, though no reference is made to the UK's own discussion list service, Mailbase - URL: http://www.mailbase.ac.uk/.

Gilster also correctly points out the confusion and difficulties often encountered in attempting to find someone's email address. His survey of the current chaotic state of directory services is very fair, and as well as dealing with the well known services such as X500, Netfind and Whois, he also mentions some more esoteric offerings that I hadn't heard of and will certainly investigate.

Interestingly, Gilster's concluding pages point to information management as the key issue in improving the utility and efficiency of the network. And in his brief concluding critique of the tools he has described so well he returns time and again to the analogy of the library and the librarian. He correctly points out that we will need these information professionals more than ever if the Internet is to prove a really useful source of quality information. To some extent software developers of network searching tools have been reacting in an ad hoc and uncoordinated way to the information explosion. It is time the information professionals became fully involved in the development process. Gilster's book bills itself as The Essential Guide - and if you want to become an expert at searching the nooks and crannies of the Internet it is certainly essential to have such a guide at present. Roll on the day when we no longer require such a volume and when every librarian has at her fingertips an integrated interface to library catalogues, citation indices and networked resources!

Nicky Ferguson

Centre for Computing in Economics, University of Bristol

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