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The Internet Lends Itself to Searching Library Catalogs

February 21, 1996|DANIEL AKST

Someday, perhaps 100 years from now, there may only be a handful of research libraries. People will reach into these giant repositories electronically, so that a single copy of a certain work, no matter where it might reside, could be accessed simultaneously by a thousand users from Haifa to Hong Kong. Meanwhile, in many respects, the Internet is itself a research library. But if you find yourself needing to do more traditional library research, there is good news and bad news about the Internet.

The good news is that you can use the Internet to access online catalogs at libraries all over the world without leaving the comfort of your computer. I can, for instance, search the Library of Congress, the New York Public Library and libraries in Australia and England, all at virtually no expense. The bad news is that when you find what you want, you'll discover that you may have to go to New York or Australia or England to get it. On Tuesday in Rancho Mirage, Calif., the American Library Assn. convened an all-day summit to explore "how to deal effectively and equitably with the information explosion in the 21st century." The library association is clearly thinking about the future. Thus, it seems fitting to take this opportunity to investigate the present where libraries are concerned.

Although it's not always easy to get the materials you find listed in online library catalogs, these catalogs are still extremely useful. Moreover, you can often use your local interlibrary loan system to obtain the resources you track down in this way. You can't get things from across the country using this technique, but you can save yourself a trip by checking the Internet to see if there's anything out there in the first place.

Internet library catalogs are useful in other ways, too. For example, a friend in Connecticut read and loved a 30-year-old novel by an obscure author but couldn't find out what else he had written. After just minutes with a couple of Internet library catalogs, I was able to provide a whole list of his works. Similarly, reporters and other researchers can find experts in a given field by doing a subject search in a major electronic library catalog and then contacting the author via a book's publisher.

One of the easiest online catalogs you can access is probably also the grandest. You can reach the Library of Congress via the World Wide Web at and perform online searches on the spot. Also on the Web, you'll find a good gateway to Internet library resources generally at the Private Academic Library Network of Indiana, reachable on the Web at Choose "Other Library Catalogs," and then, from the next menu, choose "Other Internet Libraries Worldwide."

Sooner or later you'll notice that, when it comes to online library catalogs, the World Wide Web will only take you so far. The fact is that accessing library catalogs electronically usually involves two techniques we haven't discussed much lately because of the Web's swift and recent rise to preeminence.

The techniques you'll need are gopher and telnet. Fortunately, neither is very difficult. Gopher, you'll recall, is the menuing system that made the Net easier to use before everyone knew about the Web. If you're accessing the Internet from a command line, just type gopher and chances are you'll be off and running. If you have a PPP or SLIP account or are directly connected to the Net, use a gopher client; my favorite is freeware called WSGopher, available from Forrest Stroud's Winsock Apps site at

As for telnet, you can do this from a command line (just type telnet followed by the telnet address). PPP or SLIP users should use a local telnet client such as EWAN, also freeware available at the Stroud site.

Accessing library catalogs this way is relatively simple. Almost any gopher you connect to will offer a choice called "Libraries" or some such. The mother gopher at the University of Minnesota,, offers just such a choice. If you want to do things more directly, just gopher, where Yale University offers a top-level menu permitting you to choose a continent. Pick one and you'll get submenus until, eventually, you can choose the library you want.


Perhaps the single most useful online library catalog is that of the University of California, which has brought together all its holdings in the huge Melvyl system. To get directly to it, telnet When asked, tell the computer your terminal type (vt100 will usually work) and follow the directions on screen. Melvyl is remarkably complete, going back further than any other comparable online catalog I've seen. Moreover, you can get what you're looking for relatively easily. The UCLA libraries, for instance, are open to nonstudents, and you can even check things out by paying a fee to become a Friend of the Library.

A great many public libraries, including Los Angeles Public Library, can be accessed via CARL, which stands for Colorado Alliance of Research Libraries. CARL offers access to more than 420 electronic library catalogs. To use CARL, telnet to, log in as PAC and select vt100. After that, just follow the menus.

You can also tap into the Los Angeles Public Library's online catalog without telnetting to Denver, which is where CARL is based. Just use any old telecommunications program to dial the LAPL system direct at (213) 623-6455 (when you're connected, hit enter).

If you find that what you want is only available in some far-flung branch, you can have it delivered to your local branch at no cost. But if what you want is at the central library downtown and you haven't visited lately, make the trip. The Internet is great, but you've just got to see that building.

Daniel Akst welcomes messages at His World Wide Web page is at

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