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


"Is this the party to whom I am speaking?"

-- Lily Tomlin, as Ernestine the operator

Having obtained your email address, you're now ready to send a message to a friend. You know the friend has an address, but you don't know what it is. How do you find out?

The best and most foolproof way is to contact your friend by telephone or letter and ask. I say this because NO Internet-wide email white pages (people lookup) service exists that can list every email address out there.

Unfortunately, calling and asking outright is usually the LAST thing most of us actually do. Chalk it up to one of those quirks of human nature! No matter how many times we are told not to bother, most of us will continue to waste lots of costly online connectivity time searching for an address that has not been registered in the first place.

Let's say, however, that you are certain the address you seek is registered somewhere. Is there a way to discover what that address is? Yes, there is.

How do you search? Here are a few options (if you do not understand references to gopher, telnet and the world wide web, do not despair; we'll be talking about them soon, and you can come back to these instructions later.)


Several email address search tools exist on the Net; WHOIS (which interfaces with CSO phonebook directory servers) is one of the most widely distributed tools; other tools you may run into are X.500 and Netfind. Typically, each allows you to look up someone by name, institution, etc. Directories usually include phone numbers, email addresses, and other information to assist you in contacting an individual. Some search servers actually search against a pool of lookup servers; others search against separate databases of registered users.

WHOIS servers are common in large organizations and on many college and university campuses. You can access them via the World Wide Web or by using a menu-driven gopher browser and traversing the Net geographically, i.e., country --> state --> institution to visit the white page services available at each site. This method allows you to zero in on a particular location and search its local directories. Many times you will also find the address of the official postmaster for the site, which is helpful when you encounter mail delivery problems or need help locating someone you can't find in a directory.

On the Web, the Virtual Tourist allows you to select a point on the globe (in finer and finer detail), to locate particular information served by specific universities and organizations. The Virtual Tourist can be accessed at:


If you're looking for people, from an organization's homepage, look for links to "phonebook," "directory," or "white pages."

If you were to access the University of South Carolina's white pages (a WHOIS server) by linking to USC's homepage on the Web (http://www.sc.edu) and checking our searchable lookup service under "Directories and Maps", you would find a listing for me. The USC directory gives email users at USC the option not to publish their addresses in the directory, and this situation is possible at other sites; so, remember, it is quite possible that someone may have an email address, but not be registered in his/her local lookup server.

There are several "centralized" lookup services you can query. The InterNIC Directory and Database Service managed by InterNIC provides access to WHOIS, Netfind, and X.500 lookups. WHOIS Person/ Organization lookup service provides unified access to three official Internet WHOIS servers for person and organization queries. The Netfind interface is a simple Internet white pages directory search facility; given a person's name and a rough description of where he works, the tool attempts to locate information about that person. The world-wide X.500 directory project is distributed over nearly 500 databases that hold data of about 2800 organizations which make their personnel data accessible to Internet users.

You can connect to the InterNIC DS service via email, gopher, telnet, or the World Wide Web. To connect via email, simply send an email message to:


Because there are several different ways to search this database, you can save time and effort by sending the Help command first and receiving specific instructions on how best to configure your search request(s).

To connect to the InterNIC DS service via telnet, telnet to:


and login as "guest". From the main menu, choose option 3 to connect to the White Pages services. From this menu, you have the option to do X.500 database searches, WHOIS server look-ups, and Netfind lookups. A tutorial is available to explain each option, and search strategies for each, in more detail.

To connect to the InterNIC DS service via the World Wide Web, open the URL:


Most of you, however, will probably choose to go directly to the Web where a wide collection of people lookup tools awaits you. Many of the search engines and commercial interests on the Web now offer people finders as an option on their home pages. Several popular white-page tools are available on the web at:


You'll even find links using some of these tools to personal homepages on the Web (a status symbol in Webdom!). Personal homepages allow folks to include LOTS of information about themselves, so that in addition to their email addresses, you're likely to find photographic likenesses, and plenty of personal opinion!


Speaking of personal opinion, one of the most unique lookup tools on the Net that puts the spotlight on an individual subject is "finger." Finger provides folks running on Unix operating systems the opportunity to create a "plan" file to include information about themselves. Then, when someone fingers their email address, it returns the plan file (as well as information about the last time they logged into their Unix account.) Lots of information, in addition to "people lookups," is made accessible via finger.

Please note that plan files are not supported on many computer systems, and many systems are not "fingerable," i.e., you can't use the finger command to look up users on these systems. Also, finger is disabled on many systems because of security concerns. According to an article in the _Chronicle of Higher Education_ (7/13/94, A15), not only does finger provide information about where and when people are logging on, but crackers are using the information to break into computer accounts.

Nonetheless, just for fun, you can still finger the most popular finger site on the Internet -- the Coke machine. Here's the story: the original Coke machine was located in the computer science department of Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh, PA., and, in the early 1970's it dispensed Cokes for a dime or so less than other campus machines, making it a popular destination, especially for thirsty, low-paid departmental "teckies."

Within a few years, the computer science department had expanded to several different floors far away from the main terminal room where the Coke machine stood. Programmers didn't like trodding down flights of stairs only to find the Coke machine empty, or worse, full of warm Cokes; so they hooked it up to the mainframe and wrote a program that told them how many Cokes were in the machine at any given time, how long they'd been there, and whether or not they were cold. The programmers created an address for the Coke machine so they could finger it from their office computers. In fact, anyone anywhere on the Internet could finger it, and many did.

Since then, other Universities have gotten into the act and wired Coke machines, Pepsi machines, candy machines, and the like, to the Internet. If your service provider supports the finger program, you ought to be able to finger the Carnegie-Mellon University Coke machine; try the command:


No matter if you are given an address over the phone or find the person's address via a lookup tool, remember: case distinctions in email addresses are significant. If someone's userid is given in lowercase, you will want to make note of that.

Also, be careful not to confuse the letters "l" and "I" and "O" with the numbers "1" and "0" in people's addresses. For example, in the Coke finger address above, the "l" is the letter "l" and not the numeral "1".)

Finally, if the address isn't EXACT, your mail won't get through. If you continue to have problems with an address, ask your colleague to email you, then REPLY to his mail. The address your mail software builds should be accurate -- make a note of it!


Try the finger command; try any of the sites included in this lesson.


     Morville, Peter.
       _Internet Searcher's Handbook: Locating INformation, People,
       and Software_.  Neal-Schuman, 1996.


If you have a Web browser, you can visit these sites mentioned earlier in the text:

* "BCK2SKOL" is a free electronic librar 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/lesson6.html