Gophers and Beyond in Library Instruction at Washington and Lee University

This is an experiment in presentation, prepared by Hugh Blackmer for the Virginia Library Association Library Instruction Forum Spring Meeting on May 6th, 1994.

Each highlighted word or phrase is a hypertext link to a text or resource. If you are using the Lynx browser:

This is a HTML (HyperText Markup Language) document. You can see its encoded form by hitting the \ key (and return to the hypertext by hitting \ again). You can find the location of a highlighted link by hitting the = key (and the u or left arrow key to return to the text). To learn more about HTML you can connect to a menu of detailed documents.
Washington and Lee University is a small (about 1600 undergraduates) liberal arts college with a law school (about 350 students). This scale makes it possible to accomplish many things by face-to-face communication that would be bureaucratized and impersonal at a larger institution. The undergraduate and law libraries enjoy a close working relationship with University Computing, and librarians have been centrally involved in the creation of W&L's electronic resources.

Students and faculty have access to Internet resources by means of login to their computer accounts on Liberty, and reference librarians have the task of supporting the growing use of this rapidly evolving world. The following describes and demonstrates the current state of development of electronic support.

Associate Law Librarian John Doyle's lawlib/netlink gateway (first set up a little more than two years ago as a means to improve access to Internet law resources) is at the core of electronic access at W&L. In March 1993 a listserv message hyperbolized Liberty as the "Greatest Internet Site in the World". Incoming traffic rose so that the systems folks had to limit outside users to 7 simultaneous logins, but even so Liberty averaged about 600 interactive logins per day from outside W&L.

John has continued to work on improvements to searching capabilities and indexing of resources, and NETLINK has migrated to the W&L gopher and WWW [World Wide Web] servers --which improves access and spreads the load of incoming requests much more sensibly than telnet logins (since both gopher and WWW protocols retrieve files and then disconnect). Combined traffic to the resources at W&L is now some 25,000 connections per day.

Less than two years ago the gophers and WWW resources that we now take for granted were much less numerous and omnipresent than they now seem. The very speed of these developments is a continual amazement as I look back at my own evolution as a user and organizer in this domain. What I struggled to understand a month ago is now daily routine, and I am optimistic that today's struggles will be similarly resolved.

Just over a year ago I had one of those standing-in-the-shower revelations that a Library Gopher would be an effective solution to the perennial problem of how to store, retrieve, and present the information necessary for people to make effective use of the burgeoning array of ACCESS tools. I sketched my scheme at a staff meeting and began to gather examples of library gopher applications, and in short order I was deputized as the gopher weenie, charged with the responsibility to establish and maintain the /Libraries and Information Access partition of the W&L gopher burrow. That meant setting up a structure or menu, finding and putting into place links to distant resources that I considered would be of interest and use to (primarily) the W&L community, and writing the instructional materials that would support our users' exploration and utilization of gopher resources.

There are some flies in this ointment, and I don't mean to represent the W&L gopher as an unqualified success. Gophers are mappings of resources, but the resources are valuable only if they are used by the people who can access them. My impression is that few students make extensive use of gopher resources unless specific assignments require them to do so, although there is a general awareness that potentially helpful resources are out there somewhere. The exploration and experimentation necessary to turn a curiosity into a useful tool seems rare --about as rare as detailed knowledge of the use of conventional reference sources. Much of the logged use of our gopher comes from outside W&L, not in itself a bad thing but indicative of a need to tailor the resources better to meet local needs and to better educate student and faculty users about the resources and their uses.

In the original scheme I saw locally-mounted texts as a grand possibility, and tried to coax W&L professors into providing them: bibliographies, syllabi, handouts, etc. I wrote a lot myself, but didn't succeed with the professors. Hypertext seems a somewhat better bet, to judge by the response from several professors who have seen my preliminary experiments, and the next round of Internet workshops will include a hands-on session on HTML courseware development.

During the last 9 months electronic access has become ubiquitous at W&L (in faculty offices and dormitories), so that a person with a Liberty account has an extraordinary range of resources at fingertips. This year students and faculty have had free access to FirstSearch, Lexis/Nexis, and UnCover, as well as usenet, e-mail, and the whole range of telnet and ftp connectivity.

The use made of these resources has been very interesting to watch and attempt to support. A number of courses have used internal usenet newsgroups to encourage discussion and writing; quite a few instructors now include tools like MLA, NAARS, the Wilson databases, etc. among those that students are assumed to use in research for papers. The reference librarians handle an increasing number and range of Internet questions at the desk, and make invited appearances in courses to introduce the details of searching. We have decided to cancel some print subscriptions in favor of FirstSearch access (the MLA is the most prominent example).

Students (and faculty) need to learn to use a rapidly-broadening array of electronic resources, need to understand that electronic is not necessarily better, and need to integrate new tools with traditional ones --and librarians have to show them how to do it and have to offer timely assistance with mechanics and strategies. Meanwhile, librarians have the daunting task of keeping up with the appearance of new tools and resources.

The last month has seen the beginnings of what I expect will be a great leap, because of improvements in the context of electronic explanations made possible through the use of WWW hypertext as a medium of presentation.

WWW and HTML offer the means to slaughter various fowls with a few well-aimed rocks: achieving better control over the proliferative anarchy of Internet resources, providing more effective guides to the wealth of print materials in the library, and enabling access to much broader (indeed, global) audiences than those reached by classroom presentations. The medium of hypertext presented via WWW servers is in fact applicable to any information delivery or instructional task, especially to those that use multiple Internet resources or (assuming the proper hardware and WWW client software) include images or sound resources.

Four cases in point, from my current experience, will illustrate the process and the potentials:

I started to produce HTML documents less than a month ago, after some pretty intensive net browsing and collection of examples and manuals. I'm sure that my skills will grow with practice, and that new technological possibilities (principally the use of image-capable browsers --NCSA's Mosaic, Cello, etc-- as the hardware necessary to run them becomes available to me) will keep me busy learning and trying out new applications for a long time to come. One important source of current information to keep in mind is the usenet group comp.infosystems.www; most of the postings are not directly relevant to my present state of knowledge, but I've picked up quite a few timely bits by following it.

I would be pleased to correspond with others who are attempting to leap tall buildings at a single bound. E-mail: