Saturday, November 1, 1997

Surfing for federal government resources

Published in IRE Journal

Bruce Maxwell's book describing electronic sources for government information is a treasure trove of access points. The 1998 edition of the guidebook is now available; a companion volume in previous years, How to Access the Government's Electronic Bulletin Boards, will not be updated from its 1997 edition, as the majority of government information moves to the Internet.

The introduction to the Internet is short, a valuable, speedy read. Maxwell discusses the issue of trusting Internet information, warning that it is easier to tamper with computer-based data than data on paper. There is also a brief explanation of how to use his listings, and information about where to start looking for government sites of the Internet. Maxwell also includes a glossary to help explain some of the basic Internet terminology, like "upload," "download," and "home page," to assist Internet neophytes (or "newbies") in feeling more comfortable. In addition, there is an index, a true gift to time-limited researchers everywhere.

The book assumes readers are already able to connect to the Internet, as many journalists are, either at home or at work. Anyone not connected to the Internet will need to find an Internet service provider.

ISPs charge monthly fees for Internet access via modem; many also provide an Email address and space for WorldWide Web pages for subscribers. Each ISP has its own fee structure and offers different services. Friends or co-workers might know of a reputable provider. Such a provider should offer a phone number for technical support.

Further, the number dialed to connect to the Internet should be a local call, to keep phone bills down.

The guts of Maxwell's book is a list of Internet sites which are available via Telnet, FTP, Gopher, or the WorldWide Web. Most web browsers (Netscape Navigator and Microsoft InternetExplorer are the most widely used) can handle FTP, Gopher, and WWW connections. Most ISPs provide a copy of a web browser to new customers.

Telnet connections require a special program called Telnet, available for download at .

I'd advise against using Telnet. It's harder to learn, since all the commands must be typed, rather than clicking around a site. It's also harder to save desired information. Once saved, the files are cluttered with unimportant information, such as menu listings and commands already typed. FTP, Gopher, and Web files are much easier to download and use: they are accessible by clicking on links, and the files downloaded are just raw information, without any other "noise."

"Maxwell's list is only of official government sites, and as such can be expected to offer only officially sanctioned data, sometimes enhanced, for publication in electronic form. For instance, the state-based Public Interest Research Groups have a website at .

Electronic media are always in flux; journalists should not assume Internet sites still exist. The government information on the sites may not be available in electronic form until after it is published on paper; online resources will not necessarily be more timely that paper archives. Further, many offices disclaim responsibility for errors in electronic copy, though those same offices will usually stand by printed materials.

Once found, the location of all information-printed and online-must be recorded for later reference, but Maxwell ignores the topic of citation of sources.

There are varying methods for citing information from online sources. My own view is that more information is better. The point of a citation is, after all, to permit a reader to check research, either for verification or edification. Nothing is more dangerous that unverifiable research.

Citations should at least include an Internet address. I would also include menu choices or search terms within the site, describing not only the location of the information, but also the method the searcher used to locate it.

Because of the constantly changing nature of the online world, Maxwell's book should be considered a guide, not an authoritative text. Further, journalists should be prepared to purchase a new edition each year to keep their references current. Given Murphy's Law, old books will almost certainly be out of date in precisely the area needed most.



How to Access the Federal Government on the Internet By Bruce Maxwell

Published by Congressional Quarterly Washington, D.C

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