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


"I feel like we've been getting away with something, ever since there were more people in the audience than there were onstage."

-- Jerry Garcia, 1942-1995, The Grateful Dead

When we talk about listservs, we're talking about discussion groups of like-minded people or people joined together by their shared interest in a particular topic who use the Internet to communicate with each other.

When I use the term "listserv," I'm actually referring to a generic group of software packages that manage mailing lists. The most popular packages are: LISTSERV (the original, written by Eric Thomas), Unix List Processor, or Listproc, (written by Anastasios Kotsikonas), Mailbase, Mailserv, and Majordomo. All serve the same purpose, provide similar features, and even have a similar set of commands for user interaction (more about this in upcoming lessons.)

Listservs support three information dissemination/communication activities on the Net:

  1. Distribution
  2. Discussion
  3. File exchange


Originally, this BCK2SKOL course was delivered as a distribution listserv. Prior to the start of the course, subscribers mailed an email letter to the LISTSERV address (which at that time was LISTSERV@univscvm.csd.sc.edu), and typed the following command in the body of their message:

SUBSCRIBE BCK2SKOL subscriber's full name

That's all they had to do; when the course began, lessons were delivered daily via email to their electronic mailboxes.

The listserv concept greatly simplifies the task of sending email to potentially very large audiences by distributing mail through a central server. This has been termed "mail explosion," since a single piece of email posted to a list can be reproduced in multiple copies and sent out by the listserv server to every list member almost instantaneously.

That's exactly what happened in this course and what made it so easy to distribute a single lesson to over 5,000 subscribers every day. I simply initiated a single mail message and then the computer took care of duplicating and distributing it within minutes to everyone subscribing from various locations around the world. Because the course had been designed as a "distribution" list rather than as a "discussion" list, communication consisted mostly of the one-way street variety -- from me to the subscribers.

Distribution lists are the favored means for delivering workshops and coursework over the Net; but they usually don't allow for two-way communication between instructor and student. That's why we set up the BCK2SKOL "bck2eln@sc.edu" mailing address -- to give subscribers an opportunity to talk to Miriam and me and give us feedback on the course without inadvertently jamming our individual mailboxes.


Unlike distribution lists, discussion lists are based on two-way or (more accurately) multi-way communication across the Net. Discussion lists allow you to subscribe to a group at any given time, read the postings, choose to participate or not, and leave whenever you want. If you wish to remain anonymous, you can.

When you join a listserv discussion list, you are putting your name on a mailing list that copies and distributes electronic mail to everyone who has subscribed. When you post an email message to the list, your message is copied and mass-mailed to every other person currently on the list. Listserv has been described as the electronic equivalent to subscribing to a periodical. Once you subscribe, the subject matter is delivered regularly to your mailbox for you to read. You may respond, or "post" to a listserv discussion list in the same way that you would write a letter to the editor.

If you are reluctant to subscribe to a listserv for fear of being inundated with more daily mail messages than you can handle, you might want to see if the listserv makes an optional "digest" available (this is an option you can set for many listserv lists). Then, instead of receiving individual messages as they are posted throughout the day, you will receive one big mail message, or "digest," of the listserv's mail, bundled on a daily or weekly basis (depending upon how the messages are archived.)


In addition to supporting distribution and discussion groups, listservs also serve as libraries of files which you can retrieve, via email, by using a few simple commands.

Available files are typically those associated with the specific lists hosted by the server. For example, BCK2SKOL is an archived distribution list; you can request copies of lessons already distributed by sending an email message to the host server, LISTSERV@vm.sc.edu (details on how to do this coming up in Lesson 9 ).

Some lists may only make available the archives of messages posted (the list's archives). Others may have additional files stored on the hosting server that you can order, such as conference announcements, bios for list subscribers, and other files relating to the list's topic. Some lists may only allow list subscribers to search their files, while others make their archives publicly available.

Note: Although these lists may keep busy "serving files," they are listservs, not "fileservers." Don't confuse the two. The term fileserver usually refers to a specially equipped computer with mass-storage capabilities that allows users to store files and share them through a network.

It's a WHAT not a WHO:

This lesson has been designed to give you some idea as to the basic functions of mailing list software packages. Coming up, in the next two lessons we'll cover how you actually interact with lists, by requesting subscriptions and files, among other things. For now, all you need to remember is that when you email these requests, you are communicating with the listserv, which is a machine not a person. That's why you have to send very specific messages: these servers are smart, but not that smart -- they can only interpret a specific set of commands.


What follows is a preview of the range of mailing lists related to librarianship. Once you've been grounded in basic listserv commands, you'll be ready to take the plunge and subscribe to one or more of these lists. Listserv participation is actually one of the best ways to get your feet wet when you begin to navigate the Net. At the end of this lesson, I'll show you how to access and retrieve two comprehensive library resource listings which include the complete listserv addresses. They also contain pointers to listservs in all major academic fields of interest, in addition to librarianship.

ACQNET -- discussion list for acquisition librarians
ACRL-AAMES -- discussion forum for academic librarians from Asia, Africa, and the Middle East
ACRL-FRM -- Assoc. of College & Research Libraries Forum
AFAS-L -- discussion of African American Studies topics as related to librarianship
ALA-WO -- ALA Washington Office Update
ALANEWS -- ALA news releases
ALAOIF -- ALA Office for Intellectual Freedom information
ALAWORLD -- ALA International Relations Discussion Forum
ALF-L -- academic librarians' forum
ARCHIVES -- discussion forum on archival theory & practice
ASIS-L -- discussion list of Amer. Soc. for Information Science
AUTOCAT -- discussion of library cataloging & authority control
BI-L -- discussion list on bibliographic instruction
BIBLIO -- Latin American library community discussion list
CALL-L -- Canadian Academic Law Libraries e-conference
CIRCPLUS -- discussion forum for circulation issues
CJC-L -- forum for community & jr. college librarians
COLLDV-L -- queries and responses on collection development
COLLIB-L -- discussion forum for college librarians
COLLIBS -- discussion forum for Australian academic librarians
COMENIUS -- discussion of library computing technology/networking
CONSALD -- forum of South Asian Libraries
COOPCAT -- cooperative cataloging arrangements among libraries
CWIS-L -- discussion list on campus-wide information systems
EXLIBRIS -- special collections and rare books
GAY-LIBN -- gay, lesbian, bisexual librarians network
GOVDOC-L -- forum on issues relating to government documents
HYTEL-L -- distribution list for HYTELNET updates
ILL-L -- forums on all aspects of ILL and document delivery
INFO+REF -- discussion forum for reference librarians
INNOPAC -- discussions of online public access catalog interfaces
IR-L -- discussion list covering information retrieval
JESSE -- conference on library teaching & educational concerns
LAW-LIB -- conference for law librarians
LIBADMIN -- discussion of library administration issues
LIBER -- media services in libraries
LIBPLN-L -- academic library planning
LIBRARY -- general issues of interest to library community
LIBREF-L -- library reference issues
LIBRES -- LIBRES Library Research E-Journal distribution list
LIBSUP-L -- library support staff discussion group
LIS-ENQUIRIES -- forum for libraries on JANET, UK
LIS-L -- global conference for students of library science
LM_NET -- school library media e-conference
MEDLIB-L -- discussion list for medical & health science libraries
NETLIB-L -- Internet library connections list
NETLIBS -- new forum devoted to librarians training library users to use the Internet effectively as an information resource
NNEWS -- online newsletter for library resources on the Net
OFFCAMP -- discussion list on off-campus library services
PACS-L -- library computer systems available to patrons
PUBLIB -- public library issues
PUBLIB-NET -- Internet in public libraries
PUBYAC -- children and young adult public library services
SCLIBN-L -- general discussion list for South Carolina librarians
SERIALS -- all aspects of serials processing in libraries
STUMPERS-L -- tough reference questions answered here
WEB4LIB -- discussion list of World Wide Web sites, hardware and software issues of interest to librarians

A REMINDER: If you subscribe to lots of listservs, or perhaps just one that is VERY busy, expect to find PLENTY of mail in your mailbox every day. Be prepared to deal with the deluge!



Here are a few sources that contain addresses for thousands of listservs, newsgroups, library catalogs, gopher servers and library-related commentary; be aware, however, that due to the volatility of the Net, many of the addresses listed in print may no longer be in use.

     Braun, Eric.  _Complete Internet Directory_.  Fawcett Columbine,

       1993. (2nd ed. is in the works)


     Hahn, Harley.  _Internet Yellow Pages_.  3rd rev ed. McGraw, 1996.


REMEMBER: You may jump to addresses of resources on the WWW included in this lesson if you have access to a WWW browser. Talk to your system administrator if you're not sure if you have access to a web browser, or if you're unsure of how to jump to (that is, open) specific URLs using your browser. More about the World Wide Web in upcoming lessons.

* "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 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/lesson7.html