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Magazines > Online > March/April 2003
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Online Magazine
Vol. 27 No. 2 — March/April 2003
On The Net
A Decade on the Net
By Greg R. Notess
Reference Librarian Montana State University

Ten years ago, my first Internet column was published in ONLINE (March 1993, pp. 84-86). Titled "The Internet Meets Online," that first column introduced a variety of information sources available about the Internet. In those early days, the columns were actually titled "On the Nets" to represent not just the Internet, but also the e-mail network of BITNET, the Usenet network for newsgroups, and even legislative initiatives like the National Research and Educational Network (NREN).

On this tenth anniversary of that first column proclaiming the meeting of the Internet with the online searching world, much has changed. Looking back over 10 years' worth of columns gives a snapshot of the growth of the Internet as a major information resource and a look at how it has changed. [Editor's note: Then-editor Nancy Garman introduced Greg as a "net rider," terminology that's now obsolete.]


In the early days, the "On the Nets" column aimed to cover the information resources available on the various networks as well as the search and technological interfaces that provided access to those resources. With the decline of BITNET and the way in which the Internet grew and subsumed Usenet, BITNET, and every other Net it could get its hands on, the column title dropped the plural and became "On the Net" starting with the July 1997 issue.

Originally, "On the Nets" appeared in both ONLINE and its sister publication, Database. Between the two of them, that was one column a month from March 1993 through the end of 2000. At that point, Database, which had recently changed its title to EContent, switched to a new editorial focus, and I focused my energies on the "On the Net" columns in ONLINE. Throughout this decade on the Net, I have tried to always feature topics that affect the way searchers interact with the Internet, with a focus on techniques, strategies, and specific information resources.


My first column certainly was not the first coverage of the Internet in ONLINE. There were several articles in 1990, 1991, and 1992, including Caroline Arm's award-winning series that debuted in the September 1990 issue. Yet the introduction of the On the Nets column showed that the Internet held potential for the information professional community and that it was an actively developing information space.

The first column, which I actually wrote in November 1992, showed that there were already enough significant information resources on the Nets to make it something of interest for information professionals and libraries. At that point, more than 400 library catalogs were accessible on the Internet. Most of the major online services, including Dialog, were accessible via the Internet. And e-mail via BITNET and the Internet, along with discussion groups on Usenet, were significant resources. My first column included sources for additional information, ways to get Internet access, and a 15-minute overview of resources, including telnet access to a Pacific Rim bibliographic database, an Archie search of FTP sites for a specific article, a Genbank search via e-mail, searching Dialog via telnet, finding an ISSN in MELVYL, and demonstrating an agricultural database.

Compared to the vast wealth of information sources now on the Web and the much greater ease of access, the early sources seem rather slim. On the other hand, compared to just a few years earlier, this was a major advance in information access.

Other 1993 columns covered even more sources: the menu-driven gopher, specialized databases available on library OPACs, searching e-mail list archives, Usenet, UnCover, and the then-new Internet presence of the Library of Congress.

1994: TELNET, FTP, & WWW

In these early years, the interface to the Internet was primarily text-based. Most accounts were terminal-style and functionality came from command line use. It was like a DOS, or more appropriately, a command-line UNIX interface to the Nets. Topics for 1994 gave details on many of these command line tools: Telnet for connecting to remote computers, File Transfer Protocol (FTP), finger for researching people, and even the first column on the World Wide Web, but only through the ASCII interface of Lynx.

Yet even these ASCII, command-line tools—which seem so primitive now—gave access to some rich information resources. The Clinton White House was publishing a significant amount of its documents on the Net. The Internet Town Hall provided EDGAR filings from the SEC even before that government agency made them available itself. And weather and climatological data sources provided the impetus for another column.


Looking back at 1995 shows that this was the year of a major sea change on the Internet and the beginnings of the rise to prominence of the graphical browser and the Web as the central interface to the Net. I started the year talking about the issues and problems with moving from the old terminal accounts to a direct connection that would enable the use of the new graphical Web browsers.

Other columns looked in more depth at the various early Web browsers such as Mosaic, Cello, WinWeb, WinTapestry, and the new Netscape. I began using URLs to identify Internet-accessible resources, a much easier method than what I had to use previously. Web search engines started becoming important with coverage of Lycos, WebCrawler, Yahoo!, and Infoseek.

Plenty of new and significant information content continued to make its way onto the Internet. Column topics focusing on such resources included Dialog's Home Page, U.S. federal legislation, the U.S. Census Bureau, and the strange but now defunct NlightN.

In my last column of the year, titled "The Internet Goes Commercial," I predicted that "a newly instituted registration fee and $50 annual fee for such domain names may help reduce the domain registration rate." That predication was way off, as domain registrations increased tremendously and have continued to be hotly contested through the present.


Now the development started moving fast and furiously, even as the Internet public was rapidly expanding in both the business realm and among the general public. As more and more information providers moved to the Web, new information resources appeared that needed coverage. I had columns on Internet-based news resources, e-mail address databases, and Internet ready-reference sources. Traditional bibliographic databases formerly only available through commercial systems became available for free on the Net: ERIC, the GPO Catalog, and technical reports databases from NASA and the DOE.

At the same time, the rising prominence of the Web led to technical developments that impacted all Web users. I covered the new Java programming language, Netscape's frames, and the beginning of metasearch engines.


In 1997, Netscape was the dominant Web browser, and the hot technology of the year was "push." New Web technology such as XML and dynamic HTML came on the scene, and we still are seeing both of those developed even today.

One column compared the Internet directories: Excite Reviews, Magellan, Lycos Top 5% Sites, Lycos Sites by Subject (formerly A2Z), and Yahoo!. Of these, only Yahoo! remains. With the growth of the online information universe, search strategies and techniques became increasingly important. So I had columns on searching the hidden Web, Internet search strategies, and new databases and features on the main Web search engines.

With the growing importance of e-mail, another column covered issues with e-mail attachments. I looked at periodicals on the Web and the way in which publishers were starting to move content from print to the Web. Expanding on the coverage of online metasearch engines in the previous year, I moved onto desktop metasearch engines and the extra capabilities available from those tools.


Writing six columns a year for ONLINE and another six for Database still did not give me enough to space to cover all of the Internet news, especially with the rapidly growing and changing search engines. So in May of 1998, I also started a news column in ONLINE called "Internet Search Engine Update." And speaking of search engines, it was in the September 1998 "Internet Search Engine Update" column that I first mentioned a little-known (at that time) search engine: "Google [] is another infrequently used search engine."

On the resource side, the 1998 columns covered MEDLINE, FindLaw, new government metasites, and DejaNews. On the features side, topics included keyboard shortcuts, e-mail filtering, and more Internet search strategies. This was also the year of the first major search engine fatality as the Open Text Index ceased to be a publicly available general Web search engine and morphed into a business-focused site called Livelink Pinstripe (now also defunct).


With the great rise in the prominence of the Net in general life during 1999, and incredible amounts of money being invested in the dot-com boom, Web sites were hunting for content to attract viewers and were living high on the money that poured in from the now much-maligned banner ads. It seemed like advertising could support content creation. So I even had a column on the information content (yes, there can be some) in the ads and techniques for retrieving and finding them.

1999 was also the year that Google first launched in beta in February and then out of beta in September. In conjunction with its official launch, Google also started up its text ad program. Search engines in general became an even more important topic for columns, with one on the rising relevance in search engines, another on the variety of Inktomi partners, and yet another looking at AltaVista's international expansion. The multiplicity of databases appearing at search engines and the intermingling of databases received column coverage. Dealing with dead links became a topic of interest as the Web started aging, while discussion forums and other virtual communities also ranked a column.


In this last year of the millennium and of the Internet boom, search was certainly the topic of the year. My columns in EContent now had the column title of "Web Wanderings," but four of the six ONLINE columns focused on search. These columns covered search engine inconsistencies, new search technologies, and two looked at multimedia searching. Even the EContent "Web Wanderings" columns had ones on finding online government publications and searching for consumer product reviews.

For Web site managers, there was a column on the use of Server Side Includes (SSI). Another column covered the potential impact of wireless information retrieval and WAP. And just in time for the market in such services to collapse, I reviewed free online storage sites. The now-defunct PubScience was reviewed and even then I questioned its value in "PubScience: Evolution or Devolution?"


With EContent's change in focus and the advent of a new millennium, I relaxed my pace a bit as "On the Net" went to a frequency of every other month and appeared only in ONLINE. The columns dug a little deeper into search engine issues, with one featuring a comparison of title search capabilities, another investigating new customization and personalization capabilities, and yet another analyzing the issue of the freshness of the search engine databases. Another column focused on the Publisher's Clearinghouse of search engines—iWon. Of course, now all the important features that it had for finding unique information content have gone, and only the sweepstakes remain.

Another column updated Web browser issues and looked into the diversity or lack thereof as Internet Explorer continued on its path to dominance. For information resources, another column looked at collections of ready-reference sources. In particular, xrefer and Bartleby offered a great number of useful sources, even though now xrefer offers a commercial version and is pulling back from free offerings available at that time.


Coming closer to the present, the Internet economy has crashed resoundingly, with portals, search engines, and sites of all kinds closing down, restricting access to those willing to pay, or otherwise limiting content access. And so 2002 had a column on dead search engines. Yet at the same time, another column covered the Internet Archive's Wayback Machine, a wonderful preservation of the Web of the past. So while some information has disappeared or been hidden behind fee-based systems, other parts of the Internet's past have been preserved and made accessible at the Wayback Machine.

Other new issues in 2002 included the new Top Level Domains that are now active, such as the .info, .museum, and .coop. Other columns covered the rapidly increasing content available from Weblogs, and the blog and news delivery mechanism of RSS. And while much formerly free content has moved behind the commercial door, some free full-text sources are still available. So the July column covered MagPortal and FindArticles. Even the ever-annoying spam rated a column

It has been a long, strange journey writing and researching for this column, and it has been of immense value to me as an information professional for all the practical knowledge I have gained from it. The Internet has become quite central to much of our work, and being "On the Net" is now almost constant. For all of my readers, thanks for sharing the journey, and let me know what you would like to see covered in upcoming columns.

Greg NotessGreg R. Notess (; is a reference librarian at Montana State University and founder of

Comments? Email the editor at


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