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THE GOODS | CYBURBIA

Getting Access to the Genuine Articles

September 03, 1996|DAVID COLKER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Somewhere in every major library there is a set of thick books that for decades has been a part of almost every student's experience. These books are a kind of reference shrine and often are assigned their very own table.

It is the Reader's Guide to Periodical Literature, a spectacularly comprehensive, regularly updated index to articles that have appeared in thousands of magazines and journals. Lucky students might have an encyclopedia and other reference books at home, but the stately Reader's Guide is the provenance of libraries.

Digital proponents have long dreamed of a day when not only the Readers' Guide but also all the publications to which it refers would be available over the Internet. That day is a significant step closer with the advent of the Electric Library, a new service from a Pennsylvania company called Infonautics.

It's our choice for this year's coolest back-to-school present for the Internet-savvy student.

The Electric Library contains the full text of articles from nearly 800 magazines, ranging from such well-known publications as the Economist, New Republic, National Review and Mother Jones, to the more obscure Nature Canada and Franchising World. It also carries about 150 newspapers and news wires, including the Los Angeles Times.

And it has transcripts from several television and radio shows, including National Public Radio's "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered." It carries several nonfiction books--including the World Almanac, Compton's Encyclopedia and the Her Heritage guide to famous American women--and a few literary selections, including the complete Shakespeare.

To find the library, go to http://www.elibrary.com on the World Wide Web. Once there, I had a search in mind that I wanted to try.

I have been trying to track down a rumor I had heard, from my computer buddy Peter, that somewhere in the world there was a priest who was offering to hear confessions via the Internet, much to the consternation of Catholic Church officials. This sounded fascinating, but after using every search trick I could think of on the Internet, I figured the story was a figment of Peter's imagination, perhaps fueled by his need for penance for spending too much time online.

Giving it one last try on the Electric Library, I typed in "priest confession Internet" in its search area, pressed the "Return" button and in a few seconds, lo and behold, Peter's reputation had earned salvation.

Six stories down on the "Results" list was "Computer Confession Irks German Catholic Church," a story from the Reuters news service. I clicked on the story and up came a screen explaining the Electric Library fee schedule. To get the full texts of articles you have to subscribe at a rate of $9.95 a month. For now, the service is offering the first two weeks or 100 documents free.

Just past the fee page was the short article out of Bonn, Germany, about a group called the Lazarus Society. The society sells a CD-ROM that has information about the church's views on sins and suggests ways its priests can be contacted via the Internet. The article didn't say if these priests would actually offer to hear confessions online, but it did provide me with a good lead.

The Electric Library is far less comprehensive than the Reader's Guide, and at this point it can't search very far back--the oldest article I found after several searches was from 1994. But the online library does have the advantage of getting updated far more regularly than a print document--and holds great promise for the future.

* Cyburbia's e-mail address is david.colker@latimes.com.

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