Getting Started on the Web

Goals: Awareness of the variety of Web resources and useful starting places for exploration.

The Web is now a vast collection of data resources, so large that it can be difficult and confusing to use. This unit provides some tips on getting your bearings in the Web so that you have a sense of where to look first.

One of the basic problems is that the Web is so new and is still growing at such a fast pace that there is no one place where you can go to find all the information you might wish to obtain on a single topic. Instead, you have to cultivate the skills of a detective tracking down leads and looking for clues to good information. Sometimes these leads payoff, sometimes not. Still, there are some sources that are more reliable than others.

There is nothing new about sifting and winnowing large stores of data and information: librarians, scholars, and scientists have been engaged in this task for centuries. When you walk through the doors of a library you gain the benefit of all their work in sorting, ordering, and classifying books, journals, magazines, and many other sources, both paper and digital. When you use a card catalog, you are drawing upon the decades even centuries of work involving the indexing of millions of sources by author, subject, date of publication, publisher, place of publication, and so forth. When you pose a question of a librarian you are drawing upon that person's many years of training and experience in locating reliable sources.

The Web is so new that librarians and scholars have not yet had time to inventory, much less index all of the new resources that are being offered. Indeed, visiting the Web these days is a little like walking into a library blindfolded after the librarians have gone home for the day. You are pretty much on your own to bump into the bookcases as you wander through the stacks.

Yet librarians, scholars, scientists, publishers, and general users have already begun to sort and order the contents of the Web. Although this is a long-term process, you can gain from the work that has already been accomplished.

Starting Places

1. Libraries and Universities

Libraries and universities are excellent starting places for exploring the Web, just as they are for locating books, journals, and other conventional paper documents. You should get to know the resources offered by your university and university library and your local public library. It is also wise to get acquainted with other major libraries around the world, both academic and public. Some examples include:

2. Reference Sources

A visit to an on-line library will lead you to high-quality reference sources. You must always question the quality of information you obtain from the Web, just as you would question the authority and currency of paper sources. Indeed, the issue of evaluating Web resources is the subject of the fourth unit in this module. In the meantime, it is useful to be aware of some of the more authoritative reference sources now available on-line. These are often digital counterparts of printed reference works such as the Oxford English Dictionary and Encyclopedia Brittanica. As much care has been exerted in checking the facts contained in the on-line versions as those in their printed counterparts. Some reference sources are only available on a "pay for use" basis or by subscription. You must check with your library to see if they subscribe to such services and how you can obtain access. For a good overview of reference materials on-line, see:

3. Subject Lists and Directories

Lists of resources remain among the most common finding aids available in the Worldwide Web. Individuals, businesses, government agencies, universities, and professional agencies all seem to produce lists covering Web resources in their areas of interest and expertise. Of course, the quality, completeness, and easy-of-use of these lists varies greatly. Again, a visit to a university, university department, or academic library is a good way to find subject lists, particularly those on specialized topics. You may also find it helpful to create your own resource list, either by "bookmarking" sources in your Web browser as you find them or, if you have your own Web page, creating an on-line list where you can list sources directly related to your own interests. Here are some resource lists available for geographers:

4. Go Directly to the Source

Go directly to the source of information whenever possible. This is becoming easier to do as Web addresses are standardized. Thus,

Often it is possible to guess the URL for many government agencies, universities, and businesses. For a bit more information about reading URLs, see: 5. Search Engines

You should also become familiar with the major Web "search engines" and how they operate. Search engines are not always a dependable way of finding materials in the Web, but they do allow you to search large domains of the Internet quickly to get a sense of what is available. Developing effective search strategies is an important topic and is addressed in the third unit of this module.

Search engines allow you to conduct "keyword" searches in the Web. You enter one or more words or names as "keywords" and the engine attempts to find all pages where these words are used. The more specific the search, the likelier it is that these engines will yield useful information. That is, a search for the keyword "cartography" will yield tens of thousands of links that must then be browsed individually for relevant information. A compound keyword search for "North American Cartographic Information Society (NACIS)" will generally lead you directly to this society's homepage. The syntax and search options vary among search engines. Be sure to check the "help" and "advanced query" pages of each search engine.

Many special purpose engines (and databases) are available for finding, say, e-mail addresses and phone numbers, such as: Further Reading

For more information about the topics covered in this unit, see:

Activity 1: Treasure Hunt

1. Topographic map of Big Bend National Park, Texas 11. Society of Woman Geographers
2. US Census Bureau 12. U.S. Geological Survey
3. Endangered Species Home Page 
(United States Fish and Wildlife Services)
13. The GIS Jobs Clearinghouse 
(Remote Sensing Laboratory, University of Minnesota)
4. Panoramic Map Collection, Library of Congress 14. Time Life Plant Encyclopedia
5. Map of Texas Major Aquifers and River Basins 
(Texas Environmental Center)
15. African Population Database Documentation 
(National Center for Geographic Information and Analysis)
6. Guatemala's Environmental Contacts 
(Environmental Reference Library)
16. Tundra Ecosystem Analysis and Mapping Laboratory (TEAML)
7. Map of Erlangen, Germany 17. The Organization for Tropical Studies
8. Inter-American Institute for Cooperation in Agriculture 18. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations
9. African Studies Homepage, University of Pennsylvania 19. The Mountain Gorilla Protection Project 
(Rutgers University)
10. Langenscheidt's New College English Dictionary 20. Rain Forest Action Network



Page created on 10/17/97 by Jennifer Allan Goett. Last revised 6/14/99.  KEF.