Online Information Sources Paper:
Comparison of InfoLib and comp.infosystem.gopher

Hella Heydorn
Midterm: New Multimedia Information LIS 296a
Spring 1994


Information retrieval from on online system and a news group are different in many ways. In choosing an appropriate information source a variety of factors have to be considered, like type of information and interaction desired. In this paper, I compare InfoLib, the new UC Berkeley Library Gopher, as an online service, with the news group comp.infosysstems.gopher. The comparison will focus first on general observations based on my experiences as a first-time user and participant of both systems. Then, I examine both information sources in terms of the value of information they provide.

1. General observations

Logging on - How do InfoLib and comp.infosystem.gopher present themselves? - What are the underlying structures?

a. InfoLib

Upon logging on, InfoLib displays an easy-to-use menu that resembles a table of contents. This table of contents is divided into local and remote information. The local information is fairly self-explanatory (Library hours; Gladis; Melvyl; etc.) The headings for the remote information sources, however, are somewhat less descriptive and accessible. For example, the heading "Other Gophers (Campus and World-Wide)" gives no indication of the wealth of information that may be accessed here. It is on the same hierarchical menu-level as the "Distinguished Librarian Award" and may mislead the user to believe that this is just a large list of other Gophers.

As a first time user, my first step was to find out how to utilize InfoLib. It does offer information "About this Gopher" which is kept very general and introductory but helpful. Though InfoLib is supposedly regularly updated, "What's new in InfoLib" retrieves the same file as "Usage analysis" which may be relevant information for library administrators but is fairly uninteresting for a "regular" user. After reading "How to search files on this Gopher" and the "Table of contents" I felt ready to start a search.

As an initial search, I attempted to find President Clinton's latest speech. I browsed through a variety of headings before "locating" the President's speeches through LC Marvel[1]. InfoLib's dizzying array of search paths might be confusing for the uninitiated user. On several occasions, I either lost track of my initial search goal, forgot where I was, or just got distracted by all the other available options. Even more confusing, the menu is in flux so that there is no point in memorizing the numerical organization of the headings. The frequently evoked images of road atlases, travel guides and maps necessary to stay on track on the Internet seems highly applicable here.

To summarize, the hierarchical menu set-up in InfoLib invites the user to browse the different directories, files and documents and to look up resources. It may be compared to a giant library (may be not staffed with well trained librarians, as Ed Krol remarks![2]) as it helps the user to locate reliable information sources.

b. comp.infosystem.gopher

Logging on, or, perhaps more accurately, stumbling into a news group is a very informal procedure. Trying to decide which news group to follow was like working a party, and deciding to join a circle after overhearing a few snippets or buzzword. The sheer number of news groups is overwhelming. Their names are only to a limited degree intuitive. They may occassionally catch the participant by surprise. For example, in alt.usage.english, I followed a rather lengthy, at some points silly discussion about the usage of "merry-go-around" and "carousel". Some participants felt very strongly about the issue and fiercely defended their opinion. Some aspects were repeatedly elaborated so that after a while the discussion shifted from mildly interesting to boring. From a strict informational point of view it would have been faster and more efficient to consult an ethymological dictionary for the usage of the two words. But from an entertainment point of view it was more interesting to follow the news group's interchanges.

There are, needless to say, more "serious" news groups like with a very high informational value, well written and competent.

I chose to subscribe to comp.infosystem.gopher to find out more about the latest developments and applications of Gopher (information I expected to find on InfoLib's "What's new..."). The info.infosystem.gopher is a news group for rather technical related questions to Gopher. There is a variety of "how does...?", "can one...?", "who has...?", and "I am trying to..." -questions and answers, mostly pertaining to the most recent updates (TurboGopher etc.) or other innovations. I, as a first-time participant, was more intimidated than informed or instructed by the "sharp talk" of the comp.infosystem.gopher-group. I was not able to find out, for example, what TurboGopher or Gopher+ can be used for. And their was no general discussion (or "soft talk") about the possibilities and boundaries of Gopher. In fact, I was so "impressed" by the level of the discussion that I chose not to post a basic question myself because I felt unsure about the "etiquette" of this particular news group.

In this news group as well, I noticed a considerable number of duplicate questions. At a cursory glance, most participants are located in the United States (some of them in Northern Europe, the Netherlands in particular) and are male.

Comparison: one-way versus two-way communication - building of virtual communities - question-answering

My observations made it clear to me that some of the advantages and disadvantages of news groups and online services are intrinsic to the nature of one-way versus two-way communications.

Though both systems are interactive, the news group has a more mobile and creative dimension as it allows the participant to be part of a world that s/he feels is responsive and meaningful. Two-way communications in a cybernetic environment can be very rewarding if the participants adhere to certain rules and standard. The examples of the two news groups I followed closely reveal that communications broke down if participants failed to observe certain standards of social interaction (pretty much the same ones that apply to a conversation in "real" reality and that are recommended in news.announce.newusers, a moderated news group) as was the case in alt.usage.english where at points participants seemed just short of calling each other names, or if they convey feelings of inadequacy in new participants as observed in comp.infosystem.gopher. Again, a good example for successful two-way communications is where the "netiquette" is observed and where topics of world-wide interest are discussed. (Does one really want to have a conversation with the world about "I am installing Gopher 2.011, and I just can't set it up right?"[3])

InfoLib, as an example of a one-way communication flow, is a good source to look up documents that are current and not edited (like President Clinton's speeches). When the user finds something s/he like, s/he can read or access it without having to worry about social codes. Once the information is retrieved, it usually meets a certain (academic) standard.

In terms of information retrieved, one may not qualify if a one-way or a two-way communication system is better. In fact, news groups and InfoLib are far from being competing information sources. They can even be complementary ones as an information-seeking person shifts his/her expectations depending on what source s/he is using.

On a more philosophical level, it can be argued that individuals are not prepared for instantaneous communications with "the world", in virtual reality, and that seemingly boundless possibilities affect human interaction in a negative way (Lewis Mumford; Jürgen Haberman; Erich Fromm; Jean Chesneaux etc.)

The differences between one-way and two-way communication leads into the discussion of virtual communities.

The underlying structure for comp.infosystem.gopher is like a talk show with a mixture of educational facts and personal opinions and interests. Participants exchange articles tagged with one or more universally-recognized labels. They take pride in their knowledge of "insider" information which they are willing to share - with other insiders. For example, a very basic question like "what exactly can Gopher do for me?" received no attention whereas a highly technical inquiry propmted several suggestions from other participants. Though theoretically open to everyone, the virtual community of comp.infosystem.gopher seems in fact exclusive and not very helpful for newcomers. At best, a novice will be refered to another, more "appropriate" news group. News groups don't seem to operate on the assumption of a world of shared human life, or a foundation of common experience that needs no explanation ("Lebenswelt", J. Habermas). In their specialisation, they seem to rather enhance the process of social fragmentation. On the other hand, news groups take pride in their diversity and freedom (lack of control) and thus mirror to a certain degree the American understanding of democracy (where special interest groups play an important role).

To help hold news groups together, various articles are periodically posted in the "news" hierarchy. These articles are provided as a public service by volunteers. They are recommended but not required reading. News group require social skills insofar as one has to be able to carry on a meaningful conversation with somebody whose opinion is different and perhaps threatening to one's own. They do bring together people who may have otherwise never "met" (though it would be an interesting study to see how heterogenous the participants in the comp.infosytem.gopher really are).

The notion of community in a cybernated world is very much different from the original meaning of community (as in a village community). The main difference is that in the latter, one does not become a member by choice. One is born into or grows up in a community. One may not "drop in" and share a set of common interests and part if communal life does not agree with one's individual life anymore. Virtual communities do not require a lot of commitment as their original purpose is no longer survival. But they do, as I experienced with comp.infosystem.gopher, nurture the spirit of competitiveness and subsequently a feeling of inadequacy as one is trying to be a "valuable" member of a small, specialized (virtual) community.

InfoLib, on the other hand, is not as much of a "spectacle" (in reference to Guy Debord) as comp.infosystem.gopher is. It does not re-create a virtual community though it is implicitly a source of information for the campus community, made by members of the campus community. It is thus more a tool of a "real" community than a "virtual community" in itself.

In the preceding discussion, I touched several times on the question of usefulness or pertinence of the information I gathered.

InfoLib meets inquiries in two ways: like an information utility (in the sense that it provides information services) and an information resource (since it provides access to information). Strictly speaking, InfoLib is an information retrieval system that does not inform the user on the subject of his/her inquiry. It merely informs one of the existence and whereabouts of documents, files, directories etc. relating to his/her request. Comp.infosystem.gopher, on the other hand, is a question-answering "system" as participants attempt to give a direct feedback to a particular question or issue rather than automatically referring the inquirer to documents that might provide an answer.

2. Evaluation of InfoLib and comp.infosystem.gopher as an information source - general learning

A user/participant desires information to: 1.) make an informed decision, 2.) solve a problem, 3.) execute the right action, 4.) increase some background knowledge, or 5.) amuse him/herself.

In order to evaluate an information source, it has to be divided into certain categories and types. When an individual selects an information source that selection typically is made before an actual examination of the specific source is possible. Therefore, the decision to select a certain information source is a perceived evaluation of the probable or expected value of a specific source. The criteria may be:

There are undoubtedly other important criteria to evaluate information, for example timeliness and cost. The ones I chose are suggested as a heuristic aid.

a. The accuracy of the information on InfoLib is somewhat guaranteed by the academic environment and the assured competency of the people who selected the information sources.

The information derived from comp.infosystem.gopher is both more volatile and commerical as the questions and answers usually pertain to brand new technology-products and how to install them. The accuracy of the information can be found out on a trial basis.

Another component of accuracy is currency. Due to their interactivity, both information sources are current, comp.infosystem.gopher being more cutting-edge and "controversial".

b. The format of an information source is the package containing the information. InfoLib comes in a strict hierarchical menu-structure, comp.infosystem.gopher, on the other hand, disseminates information in a semi-semi-structured format in that a posting has a well-defined header field an an unstructured text body. Thus the criterium of format may influence an individual's decision to prefer one source over the other.

Form has to do with the language (or jargon) in which the information is presented and its general clarity. According to certain information retrieval theories[4] , the appropriateness of the form of information will be closely related to the style in which the information is presented as well as the level of comprehension that is needed to unterstand the information. For example, a search on InfoLib on TurboGopher will lead me to documents that explain TurboGopher in a "layered" way, progressing from simple concepts to more complicated issues. Comp.infosystem.gopher puts forward more immediate information that, specially in its choice of language, assumes an extended background knowledge of the inquirer.

Both information sources are at times redundant. Redundancy, however, particulary in the discussion of a news group, does set a frame of reference.

c. Physical availability is the last criterium considered in this context. Judging by my own information-seeking behaviour, selection of an information source is strongly influenced by the "law of least effort" and thus by the ease of access[5]. I never experienced difficulties logging on to a news group whereas it happened quite frequently that InfoLib got stuck or that a connection could not be made or that an "option is not available at this time".

This evaluation process may help detect the discrepancy between perceived and actual value of the information derived from InfoLib and comp.infosystem.gopher. Both information sources are somewhat complementary as they disseminate information in different formats and at different times. The news group spread news more rapidly than the more formal online system; and eventually, there may very well be a "About TurboGopher"-heading on the welcome screen of InfoLib.

Works consulted

Chesneaux, Jean: Brave modern world. The prospect for survival. New York, 1992.

Convey, John: Online information retrieval. An introductory manual to principles and practice. London: Clive Bingley, 1989.

Debord, Guy: Society of the spectacle. Detroit: Black and Red, 1982.

Fromm, Erich: The revolution of hope. Toward a humanized technology. New York: Harper and Row, 1968.

Habermas, Jürgen: Theorie des kommunikativen Handelns. Frankfurt a.M.: Suhrkamp, 1981.

Krol, Ed: The whole Internet . Sebastopol, Calif.: O'Reilly, 1992.

Lancaster, F. Wilfrid; Warner, Amy J.: Information retrieval today. Arlington: Information Resources Press, 1993.

Mumford, Lewis: The myth of the machine. Technics and human development. vol.1; New York: Harcourt, 1967.

Saunders, Laverna M. (ed.): The virtual library. Visions and realities. Westport: Meckler, 1993.

[1] The path I chose was: Other Gophers - Domestic Gophers - LC Marvel (LC Gopher) - Federal Government Information - Federal Information Resources -Information by Agency - Executive Branch - White House - White House Speeches -1993 or February or January or March.

[2] Ed Krol, The whole Internet. User's guide and catalog. Sebastopol, Calif.: O'Reilly, 1992, p. 191.

[3] Posted on comp.infosystem.gopher on February 23.

[4] For example Charles R. McClure: Information for academic library decision making. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1980.

[5] In fact, research by Peter G. Gerstberger and T.J. Allen reveals that the single most important criterion used by research and development engineers in the selection of an information source to be the "law of least effort". (...) Perceived accuracy of the information source is a secondary consideration." (In: McClure, p. 165.)

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