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


"Half the world's population has never made a phone call."

-- Communications Industry Rep, 1995

LISTSERV (also known as REVISED LISTSERV, written by Eric Thomas) is the most popular mailing-list software on the Net at present, and it was the original animal.

This software, which enables folks to create and manage mailing lists, is running on hundreds of computer sites on the Internet. Each mailing list thus has a home server where it is managed or 'hosted'. The BCK2SKOL list was originally managed by LISTSERV software on the Internet host, "univscvm.csd.sc.edu." (Note: lessons are currently archived on the host, "vm.sc.edu")

Although LISTSERV is everywhere today, it was originally designed to run on giant IBM mainframe computers for the BITnet network. As you may recall, BITnet came into being as an ivy- league academic network to support mail and file exchange. Facilitating the sharing of ideas and information among academicians and researchers was its founding principle. (As of January, 1997, BITnet is no longer operational; see Lesson 2). Although BITnet has ceased to exist, LISTSERVs continue to flourish.

The original LISTSERV is not the only mailing list software on the Net, however. There are several other mailing list software packages available for managing discussion forums; Unix listprocessor (or Listproc), Mailserv, and Majordomo, are among some of those you may bump into.

While the different packages serve the same functions discussed in our last lesson, the commands that each understands are just different enough to be confusing, and some of them support features that others do not. I will give you directions to a document at the conclusion of Lesson 9 that will spell out very clearly the commands accepted by the various mailserver packages.

You will also find command information in the "Welcome" message you receive when you join or subscribe to a list. Always save this message because it not only describes the purpose of the list, it tells you how to unsubscribe. You may need this information later on if you decide to leave the list. As a general rule of thumb, be sure to read carefully all instructions that you receive.

As you become more familiar with the mailing lists on the Net, you will find that some discussion lists are moderated and some are not. When a list is moderated, postings to the list are reviewed by the moderator, who then determines what shall and shall not be distributed to the entire list. Unmoderated discussion lists distribute all postings received automatically.


Don't forget -- when you communicate with a listserv server, you are actually communicating with a machine, not a person. Although, as I just said, some listservs are monitored and maintained by humans, it is the machine and not the human that accomplishes the duplication and distribution functions of the listserv. Keep this in mind *before* you post.

(NOTE: There are exceptions to every rule: a few mailing lists ARE run by a person without benefit of a mail server. These tireless individuals keep personal copies of subscribers' addresses and forward contributions to the mailing list they maintain. If you get instructions for a particular mailing list, and the only instructions for subscribing are to send a personal request to the list's owner, the list probably isn't automated.)

The most important thing you must remember about listservs is that they have two addresses: (1) the listserv address and (2) the list address. Although both addresses are computer-based, there is an *important* difference between the two. Let's look at them:

  1. The listserv address --
    The listserv address is the one you use when you are sending a command to the server (i.e., the machine): subscribing, unsubscribing or retrieving files. Since BCK2SKOL lessons are archived on the University's CMS mainframe computer (vm.sc.edu) and managed by the LISTSERV software, the listserv address for BCK2SKOL lessons is:


    When communicating with a machine, commands are included in the body of the email message (NOT in the subject field, which is typically ignored); commands are just that; they request a specific action, such as "subscribe," "unsubscribe," "index," "get,", etc. The command word is followed by additional keywords supplying required information, one of which is the name of the list itself. Because most mailserver sites maintain many different lists, you must always remember to tell the mailserver the name of the list you are referencing or it will be unable to execute your command and you will receive an error message.

    For example, if we were to reactivate the BCK2SKOL class as a LISTSERV and I were to try to subscribe to it by mailing the following command to LISTSERV@vm.sc.edu:

    SUB Ellen Chamberlain

    the server wouldn't know which of its mailing lists I was trying to subscribe to (in fact, it would think I was trying to subscribe to a list called ELLEN!), and it would reject my request. To subscribe successfully, I would have to send this message:

    SUB BCK2SKOL Ellen Chamberlain

    NOTE: This is only an example. Please do NOT try to subscribe to BCK2SKOL; it is no longer being offered as a LISTSERV.

  2. The list address --
    The list address is the one you use when you want to post a message to the membership of the discussion list. This message is treated as a letter. It is duplicated and sent out to everyone currently subscribed to the listserv. When posting a message to the list, you'll want to fill in the subject line because it is considered good "netiquette" to do so. In this way, members of the list who are not interested in the subject of your message can delete it, if they choose, without having to read it.

    A WORD OF WARNING: In order to save yourself future embarrassment and avoid having your mailbox fill up with "nasty grams," do not confuse the listserv and the list addresses. If, for example, you mistakenly send your "subscribe" command to the list address, the machine will reject you -- frustrating, but not fatal. However, let's suppose you have subscribed successfully, but now you wish to leave the list. You continue to confuse the two addresses and send your "unsubscribe" message to the list address. Bad choice this time! Your "unsubscribe full name" message will end up in each subscriber's mailbox -- you're red-faced, and still not unsubscribed. I know you'd like to avoid this misstep, so *please* make a note of the difference between the listserv and list addresses now.

    Finally, if you wish to respond individually to another person's posting to the list, don't be too quick to activate the reply command or you may discover, to your dismay, that you have posted your personal message not to the individual, but to the entire membership of the list. Most email packages will provide you with an option for replying to the original sender. Ask your computer support folks how yours works.

After reading these dire warnings, you may be afraid to post at all. Actually, when you first join a list, it's a good idea to wait until you have a good sense of what's happening; if you don't want to send any messages, you don't have to. You may choose to participate actively in listserv discussions by posting messages or you may prefer to "lurk," i.e., to simply read the comments of others as they arrive in your mailbox. Either way, you will be kept up-to-date on the subject matter of the list.



You'll find additional help in:

     _Internet Resources: A Subject Guide_.  Association of

       Colleges and Research Libraries, 1995.



SPECIAL MESSAGE TO SUBSCRIBERS ABOUT LISTSERVS: Don't despair when you fail to receive a correspondence. Systems go down and come back up without warning. Sometimes it's a transient problem (the host is unreachable), or a gateway problem (network outages); sometimes your mailbox is full ... not much anyone can do. But cheer up -- in Lesson 9, I'll show you how to retrieve missing information and interact with listservs by using a few commands.

* "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.
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URL: http://www.sc.edu/bck2skol/fall/lesson8.html