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


"Trends, like horses, are easier to ride in the direction they are going ..."


Although frequently called the "information superhighway," the Internet is actually a precursor to the multi-network that will some day provide universal access to digital communication services around the globe. It has been likened to a highway system because it functions much like a network of interstate highways. In reality, the Internet is a "network of networks," connecting a growing number of regional sites to an intercontinental electronic grid that today encompasses, according to 1996 statistics from the Matrix Information and Services (MIDS), 13.4 million individual servers in more than 100 countries around the world. In the _InterNIC News_ (January 1997), Robin Murphy, of InterNIC Information and Education Services, reports that "over 80,000 new domain names were registered by InterNIC and Network Solutions, Inc. each month by the last quarter of 1996."

The Internet came about as a logical extension of the massive highway building campaign which took place during the 1950's when the cold war was at its height. In the name of national defense, the government underwrote the cost of constructing a system of interstate highways linking major cities across the country, and thereby allowing the military to quickly reinforce any front in case the United States was ever attacked.

The basic assumption was that, if one city were destroyed, the effect on the overall flow of supplies to the rest of the country could be minimized by the availability of alternate routes bypassing the area of destruction. Similarly, the highway network would allow the military to decentralize and avoid having to rely upon a single "command headquarters" that could be targeted and put out of commission by the enemy.

This notion was also the driving idea behind the creation of the Internet. By the late 1960s, with the highway system in place and supply routes secured, the military turned its attention to securing its system of intelligence. It set about ensuring the safe transport of data between huge mainframe computers at different strategic locations by creating unlimited alternate communication routes in case of bomb attack and by decentralizing functions so that no single computer could be targeted as an "information headquarters."

In 1969, the Department of Defense's Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) created the Internet. But it wasn't known then as the Internet; it was called "ARPA" or "ARPAnet," and it had to do with security and defense. ARPAnet used myriad connections to link together four mainframe computers -- at Stanford Research Institute, the University of California at Los Angeles, the University of California at Santa Barbara, and the University of Utah -- so that if one were taken out, information could continue to flow among the others over alternate paths. This was accomplished using a new technology called packet switching. Previously, computer networking efforts required a line between each computer on the network and data moved in a continuous flow from host to host. Packet switching changed all that. It allowed data files to be broken down into chunks or "packets" of from one to around 1500 characters for random tranfer to their ultimate destination. Packet switching allowed the same communication lines to be shared by many different users at the same time.

In the years that followed, the network grew. The Department of Defense concurrently developed MILnet, a network for not-so-top-secret stuff, which was linked to ARPAnet. In 1986, another U.S. government agency, the National Science Foundation (NSF), set up a network of five supercomputer centers called NSFnet. NSFnet proved so successful that it eventually replaced ARPAnet, which was shut down in 1990. NSFnet provided additional networking links to academic institutions around the country by creating a system of smaller regional networks connecting universities to their nearest neighbors in chains that at some point connected to one of the five linked supercomputer centers. In this manner, any computer on any of the chains could eventually communicate with any other computer on any of the chains by forwarding the conversation through its neighbor. The Internet, as we know it today, had come into being.

With the creation of NSFnet, academia suddenly found itself with access to fast computers, previously available only to government employees and contractors, weapons developers and a few computer science researchers. With this connectivity also came access to newer, higher-level internetworking protocols (the language unlike computers use to talk to each other), such as TCP/IP. TCP and IP are two of the most important protocols; you don't need to know the details of how they work in order to appreciate what they do. The TCP part of TCP/IP assumes responsibility for breaking down the raw data into "packets" at the one end and reassembling everything correctly at the other; the IP part takes care of transferring the data packets successfully to their intended destination.

As more and more networks, both within and outside the country, "gatewayed" email access to the emerging Internet, an exchange of information on a global level followed. One of the first gateways was to BITnet, ("Because It's Time Network), an academic network of mostly mainframe computers developed in the early 1980's in response to academic researchers' needs for collaborative scholarship. (BITnet provided email and file transfer capabilities, and spawned the first LISTSERVS, i.e, electronic discussion groups, among academic institutions.) Since BITnet connections were limited to mainframe systems and the network speeds were much slower than allowed by Internet's networking scheme, BITnet has gradually been superceded by the Internet. As of January, 1997, BITnet, like ARPAnet, has shut down permanently.

Throughout the 1980's, technological advances in computer hardware and software made powerful computers more accessible to the public. Better communications systems allowed more computers to link to the network. Still, during this period, computers on the Internet numbered only in the hundreds and, for the most part, were used primarily by government and scientific researchers and a few free-wheeling "teckies". Then, in 1991, Vice President Gore gave his "Information Superhighway" speech, and overnight, the "Internet" and "Information Superhighway" became household words.

Today, no one knows the number of individuals connected to the Internet but most experts agree that the figure is somewhere between 20 and 30 million. 1996 figures, supplied by the _Internet Business Center_ put the number of potential direct consumers of electronic information at 22.6 million; for those who can at least send and receive email, they estimate a figure closer to 35 million. Win Treese's 1996 _Internet Index_ puts the number of people over 16 with Internet access at 37 million and estimates that, by the end of the century, Internet hosts will total over 100 million. In "Hobbes' Internet Timeline," Robert H. Zakon takes a more measured view. "This is too controversial, and relatively inaccurate," he says. Suspecting it's an issue over which he could get flamed or spammed, Zakon nonetheless bravely estimates the total number of Internet users as somewhere between "1 (himself) and 5 billion."

Whatever the actual number, one thing is clear. There are hundreds of thousands of us out there, with thousands more coming on by the day. The new users are both searching for information and bringing information with them and, in so doing, they add megabytes of data to the Internet. New addresses are created and old ones shut down. The Internet is, indeed, a vibrant, living web of interconnecting strands or links crisscrossing the entire globe and providing multiple avenues to information on a scale never before known.

Who is managing and coordinating all this activity? Actually, nobody. You'll never see complete uniformity on the Net because no central authority or governing body controls or runs the Internet. Universities, schools, governments, individuals and businesses own the hardware and the files at their particular sites. The backbones that interconnect the sites are jointly owned by hundreds of telecommunications companies, government agencies and universities, which spend tens of hundreds of thousands of dollars annually for Internet connectivity.

The government originally funded the network's physical development and encouraged academic participation by providing grants through the National Science Foundation (NSF) to establish connections. Regional Internet providers sold NSF hub connections to interested industries and to institutions of higher education. In April of 1995, the government's NSFnet project was officially replaced by the NAPS (Network Access Points) schema, with acknowledged commercial providers controlling the backbone now supporting the Net; today, the original regional providers relay costs and services from a NAP rather than from an NSFnet hub.

So, contrary to popular opinion, the Internet is *not* free. If you have so-called "free" access to the Internet, it is because someone -- usually your school or employer -- has covered the cost and is kind enough not to pass it on to you (at least not directly and not yet). As demand and usage increase, putting added pressure on systems already overburdened, this basic scenario could change. Of course, those of you not lucky enough to be allied with a firm or institute offering "free" access may be paying a monthly fee for the privilege already.

Whether or not you pay for it directly, your Internet connection provides you with an open door opportunity to participate in the "free" exchange of information on a scale unprecedented in the history of humankind. Not since the advent of public libraries have we had such an invitation. Now, it is up to us to use it wisely and well.



Check out your own collection, or that of a nearby library, for more information on the Internet, its history and what it's all about. Here are some suggested titles for further reading:

     Benson, Allen C.  _The Complete Internet Companion for

       Librarians_.  Neal-Shuman, 1995.


     Hafner, Katie. _Where Wizards Stay Up Late: the Origins of the

       Internet.  Simon and Schuster, 1996.


     Hahn, Harley.  _The Internet Complete Reference_. 2nd ed.

       McGraw, 1996.


     Kehoe, Brendan P.  _Zen and the Art of the Internet: A Beginner's

       Guide_.  4th ed.  Prentice-Hall, 1996.


     Krol, Ed. _Whole Internet User's Guide & Catalog_.  2nd ed.

       O'Reilly & Associates, 1994. (A 3rd ed. is in the works)



* "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

Return to BCK2SKOL Index

Go to Next Lesson

Links checked 9 March 1998. See the BCK2SKOL homepage for course update details.
Copyright © 2000, the Board of Trustees of the University of South Carolina.
URL: http://www.sc.edu/bck2skol/fall/lesson2.html