A Class on the Net for Librarians with Little or No Net Experience


"He can run, but he can't hide."

-- Joe Louis on Billy Conn, 1946

According to Webster's dictionary, the gopher is a burrowing rodent, about the size of a squirrel. The gopher is also the mascot of the University of Minnesota, home of the "golden gophers." Not surprisingly, when a team of programmers from the University of Minnesota designed a browser with the capacity to borrow around the Net and "go fer" information, they named it "gopher."

The gopher was first released in 1991 and soon proved to be as hardy and indestructable as the gopher in "Caddy Shack." By March 1995, approximately 6000 gopher servers were in operation worldwide. Some rodent! In the last two years, however, gopher has been superseded by the more flexible and sophisticated WWW client/server interface (more about the "web" in lessons 27, 28, and 29). While not as far-ranging or as ubiquitous as in the past, gopher is still a beast you will encounter on your net explorations. Just be forewarned ... many gopher collections are no longer being kept up-to-date as web applications with more flexibility and pizzazz take their place! When navigating in gopherspace, always check for dates to see if you've reached current information, and look for information pointing you to web pages that have been developed as an alternative. (Checking for dates is a good rule-of-thumb when travelling anywhere on the Net!)


Gopher organizes information in a hierarchical menu structure; each gopher host has a "root" menu, or main menu, that provides links to submenus, documents, search tools, and other types of connections. The content of the items in the root menu is determined by the gopher's administrator. A more or less typical root menu (none will look exactly the same, of course) is shown below. When you select an item from the root menu, you are then connected to that document or submenu -- which may be located on the same gopher, or thousands of miles away!

Typical "root menu":

  <document>    About this gopher

  <menu>        Desktop Reference

  <menu>        Frequently asked questions

  <menu>        Guides to the Internet

  <menu>        Libraries & Electronic Books

  <menu>        Newspapers, Newsletters, & Journals

  <menu>        Other gophers & information servers

  <menu>        Local information

      snip ...

  <document>    What's new on this gopher

Don't panic. Your gopher menu may look entirely different from this example; your menu options will probably be different, and, depending on the gopher tool you are using, your menu options may be labeled differently (maybe you will see a little icon that looks like a page of text instead of the label <document>). Also, depending on the gopher tool on your workstation, you may interact with the menu differently: if you're using a graphic gopher, you probably select from the menu choices by using your mouse; if you're using a text-based gopher, you may use your cursor keys and <enter> or press a function key to make a connection.

Regardless of the gopher interface you are using or the options available to you from your 'home' menu, once you have mastered the peculiarities of your particular gopher interface, you'll be able to use it to navigate all the gophers on the Internet using the same set of rules!

What can gopher do for you? You can use gopher to access menus, search files, and retrieve software, programs and documents. Via gopher, you can search special databases and download texts, pictures, audio clips, and videos; using gopher you can link to news and weather sources and online reference tools (fact books, dictionaries, thesauri, etc.). Read on ...


Gopher is a client/server computer application. Gopher "client" software allows you to connect to various gopher servers worldwide. You've already seen that there are dozens of gopher clients or "user interfaces" available for a variety of computer systems. Check with your system administrator to find out which gopher client you are using on your system; your administrator may even be able to point you to some operating instructions for your gopher client.

Gopher "server" software allows you to provide or "serve" information to others on the Internet. Most universities, corporations, and government agencies serve information to the public via gopher, but anyone with a little bit of computer expertise, an Internet connection, a gopher server package, and some dedication to the task can also serve the public.

To clarify the client/server concept, here's an analogy: picture the client as a customer at the drive-through window of a fast food restaurant and the server as the employee taking orders through the intercom hook-up. The customer drives up, consults the menu and makes his choices; the employee fills the order and hands over the goodies at the pick-up window; the customer leaves and another customer takes his place in line. (The only differences are -- your order is not edible and you don't have to pay for it!) Your gopher client tool or interface allows you to navigate from menu to menu (and server to server) until you locate the information you seek. Your client software queries the server and the server responds. Now, let's take a closer look at both sides of this arrangement.

  1. GOPHER CLIENTS: the User Interface

    To use gopher, you must first have a gopher client program on your local host. (NOTE: We will see in Lessons 26-28 that gopher sites can also be accessed via the WWW; if you're touring the live WWW version of BCK2SKOL, you'll note the gopher locations here are 'hot'.) You may also be able to "telnet" to a site where you can access a public gopher client. (We'll be covering telnet in Lessons 17 & 18, so you may want to return to this section after you've covered those lessons.)

    Here's a few public gopher server sites offering telnet connections:

    If your system provides access to a gopher client, you need only open it (on command-based systems like mine, that means entering a command, such as GOPHER), and you'll be presented with a root menu from which to begin your explorations. In my case, the gopher client on the CMS mainframe computer at the University links me to the USC gopher server (gopher.sc.edu) at startup. For you, the default server root menu that you access will depend upon the gopher connection originally set up by your system's administrator. Many of you can most likely reconfigure your gopher client to point to a different root menu at startup if you like. Check option or preference settings in your gopher client.

    Once the connection to the default gopher server is accomplished, you will use those menu options to select the most likely route to the information you seek. Your gopher client is hardworking and very clever: every time you select an item on the menu, your client will automatically connect you to the site that holds the information you seek, whether it's stored on a computer next door or on one half a world away; you don't need to know exactly where the file is located or even how to go about retrieving it because your gopher client will do this for you.

    As you move from one menu screen to the next, your gopher client will keep track of your progress so you can retrace your steps, go back to any previous point and begin exploring outward in another direction from there, if that's your choice. As you select from one menu after another, you may not even realize how far you've travelled in order to retrieve a single piece of information! That's the beauty of gopher -- it allows you "transparant" access to information residing at thousands of different locations.

  2. GOPHER SERVERS: Now Serving Customer Number ...

    Since gopher servers provide the means to organize information in logical sequences, you'll find them configured in many different ways; there are gopher menus arranged by subject, alphabetically, geographically, or any other way the host site determines useful or appropriate.

    On college campuses, some servers are configured as CWIS (Campus Wide Information System) gophers. Such systems typically serve two purposes: 1) to promote the specific college or university and provide links to public information, and 2) to provide links to information for internal interests. For example, a CWIS might serve information about programs of study available, admission requirements, teacher-student ratios, and calendars of campus events, phonebooks, class schedules, etc.

GOPHERSPACE: What's Out There, Anyway?

Gopherspace is a term coined to refer to all of the menus and information accessible on the Internet through the use of gopher. In gopherspace you will discover that many different tunnels lead to the same information (because the folks managing gopher servers at various sites create links to the same useful resources in many instances.)

Practically every major university, research institution, library, government entity, or commercial interest on the Net has developed its own gopher server and root menu. When you access gopher, you have the ability to connect to any of these public information servers. As you do, you will discover that some gopher servers are faster than others, some contain more interesting links and some are more heavily used -- while many are no longer maintained, poorly maintained, or perhaps 'empty' (no longer accessible). In tunneling through gopherspace, your gopher client may be conversing with hundreds of different gopher servers. If there are times when connections take a long time, or don't work, be creative -- try another avenue and point your client in a different direction via another server.

As you'll see in an upcoming lesson, not all gopher servers are alike and not all gopher servers are equal -- the more thought put into the design and the more time put into keeping the information up-to-date, the better the gopher. Stay tuned and I'll show you how to earmark the great gophers to make your return visits a snap!


* "BCK2SKOL" is a free electronic library classroom created by Ellen Chamberlain, Head Librarian, University of South Carolina Beaufort, and Miriam Mitchell, Sr. Systems Analyst, USC Columbia. Additional support is provided by the Division of Libraries & Information Systems, University of South Carolina Columbia.

Your feedback and support for BCK2SKOL are appreciated; please email link updates, suggestions and comments to: eechambe@gwm.sc.edu

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Links checked 6 January 1999. See the BCK2SKOL homepage for course update details.
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URL: http://www.sc.edu/bck2skol/fall/lesson12.html