Issues in Science and Technology Librarianship Spring 1997

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Information at Your Fingertips: Use of the Internet at the Life Sciences Reference Desk

Janet Hughes
Life Sciences Library
Pennsylvania State University


With all the hype about the world wide web (WWW) and graphical browsers such as Netscape and Mosaic, it is sometimes overlooked that many people who gain access to the Internet do so with relatively primitive equipment and connections. Many people are still using e-mail, listservs, FTP, gophers and text-based web browsers, such as LYNX, as their only means of entering the Internet. It is for those people that this paper was written. This is not a paper spouting technical jargon about the newest, trendiest Internet sites. Rather, it is a paper giving some practical examples of how "primitive" Internet tools have been used at a reference desk.

At the Pennsylvania State University Libraries, only recently have staff computers been Windows based and with sufficient power and speed to be able to use the full bells and whistles of the Internet. For years the staff coped with text-based access only. Further, LIAS, the VAX-based Libraries Information Access System, through which the Libraries' patrons gain access to the Internet, is still text based (and will be for a few months yet). Although patrons can use the WWW via LIAS, it is with the text-based LYNX software. Therefore, it is still necessary to be able to show patrons how to use text-based Internet resources. This paper discusses how, when, and why the Internet has been used at a Life Sciences Reference Desk, and gives examples of some of the resources frequently used at the Life Sciences Reference Desk. Most of the examples are text-based, however, if web versions are also available, the URLs for such sites will be included.

Internet Connections Available at Penn State

The Pennsylvania State University Libraries has been connected to the Internet for several years, and offers its staff and patrons many ways to gain access to the Internet. Some are available to all library users at Penn State through LIAS while others are restricted to staff usage. E-mail, FTP and direct telnet abilities are restricted to staff usage. LIBS, hidden telnet, gopher and WWW functions are available to both staff and patrons via LIAS, although the patrons WWW functions are LYNX-based. Patrons can use e-mail, FTP and direct telnet through the University's computers, but not through the Libraries' computer.

How and When Various Internet Resources Have Been Used

E-mail has become so ubiquitous that it is sometimes forgotten that it is part of the Internet. Yet, it is a vital part of the Internet, and can be very useful at the reference desk. By far this researcher's greatest usage of the Internet is for e-mail. It is used to communicate within the Libraries and with other institutions, to participate on listservs, to send out announcements, news and other such information. It is used at the reference desk when the patron is willing to have the answer sent to him/her later. A query will often be sent to a listserv, or to someone who would be able to answer the query. When the answer is received, the patron is e-mailed, or called, to pass along the information.

FTP is used less so since it has an arcane command system that tends to be avoided. It is mostly used when some large e-mail file has been received that needs to be edited before printing it out. The e-mail file is FTP'd from the Libraries' VAX to a hard drive and then it is imported into a word processor. It is not something used often at the reference desk, although the files being transferred may well contain the answers to reference queries posted by e-mail. The only time it was used at the reference desk was when the print copy of a government document was delayed. An electronic version found via a WAIS search was FTP's. However, once the file was FTP'd, it had to be printed out for the patron to read and this took time and lots of paper.

Telnet is used very often at the reference desk. There are several varieties of telnetting. Using the LIBS software, it is possible to telnet to other libraries' catalogs without having to know the IP address or log-on procedures. It is used primarily to search the Mann Library at Cornell since there is a first-rate agriculture and life sciences collection there. If it is necessary to verify that a book exists on a certain life sciences subject, Cornell's catalog is checked. (Cornell is also checked for collection development purposes).

There is a hidden telnetting available to staff and patrons in which they connect to remote databases and search them using LIAS commands since these are connected via a Z39.50 protocol. Such databases require a subscription and are limited to on-site users or authorized remote users. Databases frequently consulted this way at the reference desk are RLIN, EIP and TOC. Periodicals Abstracts used to be accessed this way also, but Penn State recently began local tape loads of that database. RLIN is used if a book is not owned locally. RLIN is used to locate a copy or to verify the citation; this is one of the most frequent uses of the Internet at the reference desk. A short survey done on a listserv found bibliographic verification to be one of the more common uses of the Internet (Bankhead, Sheila W. (1995, February 14). Summary: Inet at reference desk. [Online] Available e-mail: LIBREF-L@KENTVM.KENT.EDU. Note 130.49).

Direct telnetting is most often used to access fee-based, password protected, online database vendors such as DIALOG, OVID or FirstSearch. Databases on DIALOG are sometimes consulted when a citation that needs verification does not appear in any of Penn State's CD-ROM or local tape loaded or Z39.50 databases. For example, Penn State has Biological Abstracts (BA) on CD- ROM back to 1985. If a patron comes in trying to verify a garbled citation from 1980 that is in a journal indexed by BA, a quick search on DIALOG to confirm or correct the information can be done.

Gophers are used to find information that is known to be available on the Internet and that can be found reasonably quickly. Most of the examples that follow were found using gophers. Many favorite sites are "bookmarked" on the Life Sciences Reference Desk's computers so that they can be accessed easily. At the University Libraries, the gopher is arranged by subject. For most patrons of the Life Sciences Library, most resources needed will be found under the "Agriculture and Biology" option or the "Health and Biomedical" option. The gopher is one of the most useful of the text-based Internet tools. Gophers are used when ephemeral information, such as job postings or guidelines to upcoming grants, is needed. The Internet is often the only place where such information is posted, or if the information is printed, it is only distributed on a very limited basis and is therefore difficult to locate. Gophers are useful to locate Campus Wide Information Systems (CWIS). If local information about universities, such as course catalogs, or about surrounding areas, such as restaurant guides, is desired, CWIS are some of the best places to find information about a university. Information that cannot be found in university calendars, such as schedules for varsity sporting events, news about student groups or committees, and reviews of locals bars and restaurants, can be found in CWIS.

Text-based WWW browsers, such as LYNX, are used as a last resort. Now that the staff have Netscape, this is used more often since moving around in LYNX tends to be tedious. Since this article is about text-based systems, it will not dwell on favorite web sites since most of the web sites used at the Life Sciences Reference Desk are highly graphical or forms-based.

What Resources Are Available for Life Sciences?

A huge variety of resources is available via the Internet. Many of the resources are government documents devoted to policies, speeches and social issues. Government documents are often found faster on the Internet than print copies are received by the Libraries. For example, patrons were requesting Clinton's Health Security Report before the paper copies were available, but it was accessible through the Internet. Sometimes the Internet is the only place in which the full text of certain speeches can be found. Other information from the includes up-to-date health statistics, news from governmental agencies, and reports from governmental research.

There are many sources of information of specific interest to life sciences librarians. These include AIDS statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; Physicians' Data Query Cancer information; Environmental Protection Agency Chemical Substance Factsheets; the Americans with Disabilities Act; information from and about the Human Genome Mapping Project; molecular biology protocols; the Current Research Information Service; and more. The Current Research Information Service (CRIS) source is an example of the Internet being used to supplement locally held resources. The Life Sciences Library had an outdated copy of the CRIS CD-ROM. Rather than purchase a new version, access to CRIS was found through the Internet. The database was made easily accessible to patrons and staff by having the pointer to the database placed high on a Penn State gopher menu.

Some of the Life Sciences Internet resources used most often include:

AIDS statistics from the Centers for Disease Control
URL: {https://www.cdc.gov/hiv/basics/statistics.html}

These statistics are broken down by state, age, gender, race, diagnosis by cities, etc.. The data is usually current (gathered within last 9 months). Other AIDS information available at this site include articles, news items, letters, essays and other items on AIDS. This site proved useful for a person wanting to know how many people have be diagnosed with AIDS in Philadelphia in the past year. It was also very useful for finding the age breakdown of men diagnosed with AIDS in the past year.

A web equivalent was not found. There are, however, a CDC home page (URL:http://www.cdc.gov/) and a web site for the CDC National AIDS Clearinghouse (URL:{http://www.cdc.gov/hiv/})

Breast Cancer Information Clearinghouse
URL: {http://nysernet.org/bcic/}

This site contains practical, clearly written information for laypersons, including sources of information, 800 numbers for support groups, information about current events, and a question/answer section. This site was used for finding the number of a support group for the Maryland area.

CancerNet Information
URL: {http://www.cancer.gov/cancerinformation}

This database has clearly written information for cancer patients. Essays discuss such topics as alternative or unconventional therapies, risk factors, drugs, standard treatments, supportive care, clinical trials, etc. A person wanting to know if a certain clinical trial was still accepting participants found his answer through this database.

Molecular Biology Protocols
URL: {gopher://ftp.bio.indiana.edu:70/1m/Molecular-Biology/Materials+Methods}

This site contains recipes and procedures for growth media, plasmid isolations, etc.; the protocols are fairly current, although some are dated. At a higher level of this site (URL: {gopher://ftp.bio.indiana.edu/70/11/Molecular-Biology}) other genetic and molecular biology resources are available. This site was used when it seemed all the laboratory manuals describing a particular plasmid isolation technique were out of the library, and the patron needed the technique immediately.

An exact web equivalent was not found, but there are many web sites containing protocols. One is fairly up to date (URL: {http://micro.nwfsc.noaa.gov/protocols/}).

URL: {gopher://ftp.bio.indiana.edu:70/11/Genbank-Sequences}
(Web equivalent URL: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/).

This database contains citations to articles to which gene mapping and sequencing data are attached; also directly submitted unpublished data This site can be used in conjunction with BLAST and RETRIEVE servers, which can be accessed via blast@ncbi.nlm.nih.gov or retrieve@ncbi.nlm.nih.gov. This site was used to obtain the complete sequence of an interleukin-2 gene. It has been used also to locate some unpublished data on a specific bacterial gene. The web version allows form-based searching and enhanced features.

EPA Chemical Substance Factsheets
URL: {gopher://ecosys.drdr.virginia.edu:70/11/library/gen/toxics}

This site contains chemical information on more than two hundred chemicals such as sodium hydroxide (NaOH),ethidium bromide (EtBr), and others. Information on hazards, ecological effects, accident procedures, etc. can be found, as well as other ecological information. There are also articles, news items, and more at the same site. This site is routinely used for an environmental resources management class in which the students must find out the ecological consequences of certain common chemicals and pesticides.

National Institutes of Health (NIH) Gopher
URL: {http://www.nih.gov/}

A variety of sources including grant and research information can be found at this site. It is good for finding out the dollar amounts for grants, grant guidelines, and deadlines for grants. It also contains health information, pointers to many other sources, news items and more.

Stumpers-L Listserv (not specific to Life Sciences)

This is a listserv (using mailserve software) on which to post difficult reference questions. Subscribers can find answers when local resources are insufficient. It is a very prolific list; subscribers should expect 50 or more messages per day. Contributors to the list include experts on many areas of research from around the world. It was used one time to find missing information in a citation to an obscure book on agriculture. The information that was already available was enough to jog someone's memory, and then he sent the rest of the information.

To subscribe send e-mail to: mailserv@crf.cuis.edu. Include the message Subscribe Stumpers-L <your e-mail address>. To post a query or to answer questions send an e-mail to: stumpers-list@crf.cuis.edu. There are keyword searchable archives of past postings available. The URL is a bit complicated. It is easiest to gopher to crf.cuis.edu and then choose "Library Resources" and then choose "STUMPERS reference questions archive". (URL: {http://domin.dom.edu/depts/gslis/stumpers/})

Cautions About Using the Internet at the Reference Desk

The Internet is a tool; like any other reference tool, it should be used only when appropriate. It will not replace the reference collection of any service desk, nor will access to it by patrons reduce the need for reference librarians any more than online catalogs have.

How often personnel at the reference desk will use the Internet depends on many factors such as which resources the librarians know about, the comfort level the librarians have with the Internet, time factors, ease of connection, and other considerations. Not all reference librarians will embrace the Internet, nor will librarians comfortable with the Internet use it on a constant basis for reference. On the other hand, some librarians are very enthusiastic about the Internet, so much so that they may lose some perspective in their eagerness to try something new.

Using the Internet for reference can only be done successfully if all parties realize the Internet's limitations. The Internet can be slow, connections can be difficult to make or can be broken for no apparent reason and the information contained in the Internet has only just begun to be organized. People often assume that if a resource is on the Internet, then it must be useful, or that using the Internet is the best way to access any resource. This is not always true. Due to the time it takes to find things in the Internet, and to connect to them, and to search them if necessary, there are only limited occasions when using the Internet at the reference desk is the most efficient method. Both the librarian and the patron should realize these limitations before using the Internet for reference.

There are certain occasions, though, when the Internet should be the reference tool of first choice. For example, if a reference tool, such as the CIA World Factbook, is not readily available, it may be quicker to check online versions. However, if the tools are present in print, looking in the index of a print tool can be much faster than browsing through its online equivalent especially if that tool that has limited search capability. It is also appropriate to check the Internet first if a patron wants information contained in databases which have no print equivalent, such as GenBank, PENpages, or CRIS. If the patron wants information that is difficult to locate, or is unlikely to be collected by a library, such as course catalogs for universities, using the Internet is a good option. If the patron needs ephemeral information, such as grant information, using the Internet is efficient. Knowing when the Internet is the resource of first choice is one of the most difficult lessons a reference librarian must learn. Only through experience is such wisdom gained.

Even when the Internet is the best option, the information located therein should be scrutinized carefully. Like any other reference source, resources found via the Internet must be critically evaluated for authority and usefulness. Lisa Janicke has a very useful guide to evaluating Internet resources called "Resource Selection and Information Evaluation" (URL: {http://alexia.lis.uiuc.edu/~janicke/Evaluate.html}) which is highly recommend to anyone using the Internet for reference. She also has some cautionary notes about using the Internet to find resources.

Tips to Make Using the Internet Easier

There are many books, guides and other publications that can give Internet users a complete list of hints and tips. The following are simply tips this researcher has noted help with using the Internet.

Use available Internet tools, such as Wide-area Information Services (WAIS) [which includes ARCHIE and world wide web (WWW)] and VERONICA keyword searches, to find sources more easily. The Internet is a vast morass of information. It is not well organized nor logical. It is important to use any and all tools available to make finding information easier.

When searching for something on gophers, do keyword searches by using VERONICAs. Use foreign VERONICAs when local ones are busy (time difference means U.S. peak times differ from European peak times); if is often difficult to gain access to U.S. VERONICAs due to the traffic. Foreign VERONICAs often have more open ports. Alternatively, have a VERONICA menu can be set up to automatically rank the VERONICAs by recent connect times.

Remember that not all VERONICA servers will return the same results for the same request, since they may be linked to different sources. A VERONICA can only find resources to which it is connected. Since different VERONICAs will be connected to different resources, do not expect to find the same resources in every VERONICA.

Remember that not all gophers are created equally well. Look for a gopher that is easily accessed, well-maintained, and has easily understood menu choices. For more information on what features characterize well-constructed gophers, send e-mail request to: kozmo@ucs.indiana.edu with the phrase "well-constructed gophers?" on the subject line.

Explore when there is ample free time, not when the patron is waiting. Exploration is important, and fun. A patron, though, just wants the information. If the exact location of a desired resource is unknown, find an alternative.

Record the location of good sources; do not assume pathways and choices made to find the resources will be remembered. Paths can be convoluted, redundant, and circular. Also, remember that the Internet is FLUID; pathways and addresses change, items are added, sources are dropped or blocked frequently.

Serendipity will help find many interesting sources. When there is time, explore, get sidetracked, get lost. Many interesting sites can be found this way. It also amply demonstrates the reasons many users feel frustrated. They expect the information to be nicely packages, easily accessible and free, when in fact, it rarely has any of those attributes.

Stay current, catching up can be overwhelming.

Citing Sources Found via the Internet

One of the questions that is usually raised after some information has been located through the Internet concerns how to cite information found via the Internet. There have been recent texts devoted to this topic. The fourth edition of the APA manual has a chapter on this topic. However, there is an entire book devoted to this subject, by Li and Crane (Li, Xia and Crane, Nancy B. Electronic style: a guide to citing electronic information. Westport, CT: Meckler, 1993.). Examples of how to cite some of the life sciences resources examples are given below. In each, the first way to cite is the way Li and Crane suggest. The second is a variation using the URLs.

Whole Document:

Environmental Protection Agency. (1986). Sodium Hydroxide, [Online]. Available gopher: ecosys.drdr.virginia.edu Directory: The Library / General / EPA Chemical Substance Factsheets File: Sodium Hydroxide


Environmental Protection Agency. (1986). Sodium Hydroxide, [Online]. Available URL: http://www.epa.gov/enviro/html/emci/chemref/1310732.html

Part of a Work:

Centers for Disease Control. (1994). AIDS cases by age at diagnosis and exposure category, reported through December 1994, United States (Table 8). In CDC HIV Surveillance Reports, [Online]. Available gopher: gopher.niaid.nih.gov Directory: AIDS Related Information / CDC HIV Surveillance Reports File: Surveillance Report 12+94 Table 8.


Centers for Disease Control. (1994). AIDS cases by age at diagnosis and exposure category, reported through December 1994, United States (Table 8). In CDC HIV Surveillance Reports, [Online]. Available URL: gopher://gopher.niaid.nih.gov:70/00/aids/csr/Surveillance_Report_12+94_ Table_ 8.

Only author's e-mail name given:

JWBROWN. (1992, January 15). DNase I footprinting, [Online]. Available gopher: ftp.bio.indiana.edu Directory: Molecular-Biology / Materials+Methods. File: DNase I fingerprinting


JWBROWN. (1992, January 15). DNase I footprinting, [Online]. Available URL:gopher://ftp.bio.indiana.edu:70/OR31685-36744-/Molecular-Biology/Materials+Methods.

Unpublished data: Leong-Morgenthaler, P.M. (1991). Sequence data for bases 1 to 1065 of Lactobacillus delbruecki, [Online]. Available gopher: ftp.bio.indiana.edu Directory: GenBank-Sequences / Search Genbank Keywords: lactobacillus delbruecki. File: X61190 L.delbruecki nifS-like gene (partial).


Leong-Morgenthaler, P.M. (1991). Sequence data for bases 1 to 1065 of Lactobacillus delbruecki, [Online]. Available URL gopher://iubio.bio.indiana.edu:71/0exec+%3A-d%20R68578003-68581377- /.data/gbfull/gbbct/seq%3A/.bin/genbankr

Internet Instruction

Library staff must have a firm grounding in all aspects of the Internet BEFORE public access is permitted. At Penn State, there are frequent hands-on training seminars, for library staff, on the individual topics of e-mail, FTP, telnet, LIBS and gophers. There are also resource people who act as problem solving experts for the various aspects of the Internet.

At the reference desk, it is usually not feasible to give enough background to explain how and why you are using the Internet. However, it is possible to at least introduce the patron to the Internet, especially if the monitor is turned so that the patrons can at least follow along with the search and retrieval of resources. As time goes on, more and more patrons are familiar with the Internet, so that less instruction is required.

When librarians are asked to give subject based seminars, Internet and gopher resources are included as appropriate. For example, in an electronic seminar for molecular biologists, the Molecular Biology Protocols resource was demonstrated. Note, however, since the Internet is fluid, it is advisable to have back-ups or alternatives ready in case the planned demonstration does not work.

To teach patrons more formally about the Internet at Penn State, there is a joint venture between the Libraries and the Center for Academic Computing. "Internexus" sessions are available at various times during the semester and open to any patron. Patrons are told about e-mail, and are introduced to listservs and discussion groups. Patrons are also exposed to the idea of telnet, and through this they are shown the Internet and gophers. The patrons are also given an overview of FTP methods.

There are many articles discussing ways to formally and informally teach patrons about the Internet. There is not one single method that is the best way to teach about the Internet. The best option depends on a particular library's computer set-up, users and the level of knowledge of the librarians or instructors. Just as no single configuration of computers will suit every library's needs, no single program will suit everyone. Assess the situation at hand, read the pertinent literature, and proceed from there.


General Overviews

Lester, Dan. The Internet in 1994: do we know where we are going? Technicalities 14(1):6-8, January 1994.

Notess, Greg R. Using gophers to burrow through the Internet. Online 17(3):100-102, May 1993.

Szofran, Nancy. Internet etiquette and ethics. Computers in Libraries 14(1): 66,68-69, January 1994.

Using the Internet for Reference

Harzbecker, Joseph, Jr. DNA sequences over the Internet provide greater speed and accuracy for Health Sciences reference librarians. Microcomputers for Information Management 10(1):43-54, 1993.

Ladner, Sharyn J. and Tillman, Hope N. Using the Internet for reference. Online 17(1):45-51, 1993.

Lanier, Don and Wilkins, Walter. Ready reference via the Internet. RQ 33(3):359-368, Spring 1994.

Radcliff, Carolyn, Du Mont, Mary J. and Gatten, Jeffrey N. Internet and reference services: implications for academic libraries. Library Review 42(1):15-19, 1993.

Sawyer, Deborah C. A matter of confidence: asking reference questions over the Internet. Online 17(4):8-9, July 1993.

Still, Julie and Alexander, Jan. Integrating Internet into reference: policy issues. College and Research Libraries News 54(3):139-140, March 1993.

Internet Training

Engel, Genevieve. User instruction for access to catalogs and databases on the Internet. Cataloging and Classification Quarterly 13(3/4):141-156, 1991.

Ensor, Pat. Getting on the Internet train, or gopher broke. Technicalities 14(1):9-11, January 1994.

Kalin, Sally and Wright, Carol. Internexus: a partnership for Internet instruction (at Pennsylvania State University). Reference Librarian 41/42:197-209, 1994

Rockman, Ilene F. Teaching about the Internet: the formal course option. Reference Librarian 39:65-75, 1993.


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