Most students are familiar with the basics of how to use electronic mail. If you are not, see your insititution’s computing center or library to get assistance. Many students are not aware, however, of how to use e-mail to its full potential. E-mail can and should do much more than transmit brief messages. Be sure to use a mail reader, not just a telnet connection to your e-mail server. Telnet emulates a terminal that lets you communicate to another computer. For just sending notes, Telnet is fine, but to manage large amounts of e-mail, send and receive attached files, and automate repetitious tasks, a mail reading program is essential.
To use e-mail you must, of course, have an e-mail account on a server. Almost all colleges and universities provide students with such an account as part of their standard fees. Commercial e-mail providers are also possible. Many students use free web based e-mail, such as HotMail (www.hotmail.com). The greatest advantage of web-based e-mail is the ability to instantly access mail from any machine without having to set up hardware. The disadvantages include difficulty in more sophisticated e-mail applications, including the use of attachments, unwanted advertisements, and substantial possibilities for slow access or even system unavailability. What system you use should depend on how you intend to use e-mail. If you will be using the same computer for all your correspondence, then a private e-mail account and mail reading software is the most useful system. If you are going to be bouncing around the world checking mail from public machines in strange places, web mail is for you.
There are innumerable mail readers available. Netscape Communicator and Internet Explorer both come with mail readers, and Eudora (www.eudora.com) provides a free basic reader for both Mac and Windows. All the mail readers work similarly; Eudora Light is our example application, but the information is easily transferable to other software packages. Most e-mail packages come with tutorials that will teach you the basics, be sure you know how to check mail, open a message,reply, cc: and forward. Frequent users should also learn how to use aliases, multiple mailboxes, filters and signatures.
When sharing word processing files, use the RTF format. Almost all word processors can save and read this, and you need not worry about software compatibility.
One thing particularly useful to Historians is the ability to attach and receive files. Any file can be sent along with an e-mail message—graphics, word processing documents, sound files, anything. This makes communication, collaboration, and consultation much easier. If you are working on a paper with someone else, or wish your professor to review a draft, you can send it as an e-mail attachment. If you have an image and wish an expert to identify something in it, send it to them. In almost all programs, attaching a file is as simple as selecting a menu item.
In Eudora you can click on the attachment button, and then select the file you wish to send.
Send the message, and the file will go along with it.
When you receive an attachment, your e-mail reader will save the file to a directory on the hard drive. This directory can be set through the program options. Eudora defaults to c:/eudora/attach. Work with a received attachment just like any other file.
Discussion Groups (Listservs):
One e-mail application used by many historians and students of history is the listserv. Listservs are public or private discussion groups where messages are distributed automatically. Say for example, Bob Smith is a member of the discussion group greatmeninhistory-l. Bob might post a message to the discussion list hoping to get some assistance with the picture of Churchill, Stalin and a mysterious third person. Bob’s message goes to the listserv program, which then sends it out to every member of the discussion group.
Discussion groups serve to bring together people with similar interests who might otherwise never come into contact with one another. They can have memberships ranging from a few to thousands, and provide a unique resource for learning.
Discussion groups are not perfect, however. Some are so inactive that they become a circle of only 5 or 6 people occasionally chatting. Others are so active that no one can keep up, even though the material might be of great interest. Some discussion groups are unmoderated—meaning anyone can post anything. Other are moderated where only appropriate messages are allowed. Unlike chat rooms and Usenet, listservs tend to be calm, serious places.
Finding the correct listserv for you can be a bit time consuming, but worth the search. It has rapidly become a given that for certain disciplines, groundbreaking and important discussions take place through this medium. No Bronze Age archaeologist, for example, would want to miss the activity of Aegeanet. For history there are two easy ways to find a discussion group. One is to visit www.liszt.com and search their list of over 90,000 groups. H-Net: Humanities and Social Sciences On-Line (www.h-net.msu.edu/) maintains an excellent selection of moderated groups where quality is consistently maintained. The Directory of Scholarly and Professional E-Conferences (n2h2.com/KOVACS/) offers a searchable list of select resources.
Proficiency Assignment 1
Subscribe to a history focused discussion group. Save the welcome message you receive, and monitor the group for two weeks. Be sure to note how active the group is, who participates in the discussions, what the tone is, and how useful the discussion is. Note that if you select a particularly quiet group, you will probably want to select another.
If assigned, forward a copy of the welcome message to your professor. Send your summary of group activity to your instructor as an e-mail message or attachment.
Subscribing to a discussion group is a relatively simple process, once the proper commands are determined. The commands to use depend on the software the listserv uses. The most important thing to understand is that there is the list address, and the list manager address. These are separate entities, and confusing the two pretty much annoys everyone. When Bob sent his message, it went to Greatmeninhistoryemail@example.com; if however Bob wanted to unsubscribe, he would send his message to firstname.lastname@example.org. Otherwise, everyone on the list would get a copy of his unsubscribe request.
Below is a list of some of the discussion group commands you might want to use. Look at the list manager type and match it to the e-mail address you received for information and subscriptions from one of the discussion group indices mentioned above. E-mail the appropriate command to the address. Do not of course, literally type [list name], [your name], [your e-mail], but substitute the appropriate name. If the list manager address looks different, you may have to contact a human controller, or some more obscure software.
There is a certain expected etiquette expected in these discussion groups, defined by the tradition of the people involved. Some groups are very serious, others lighthearted. Some are very active, others are used only for the most important communications. As you are entering a new community, it’s nice to respect their ways. Watch for awhile before entering into a discussion. One thing you never want to do is join a group and then immediately post a question about some class assignment. All too
Digest (all messages are compiled into one message sent every 24 hours or once a week)
SET [list name] DIGEST
SET [list name] MAIL DIGEST
(In the same message, unsubscribe from the undigested version:)
SET [list name] MAIL
SET [list name] MAIL ACK
UNSUBSCRIBE [list name]-DIGEST
(In the same message, subscribe to the undigested version:)
SUBSCRIBE [list name]
Get list of Subscribers
REVIEW [listname] F=MAIL
frequently as the end of the semesters discussion groups are barraged with questions like, “I’m doing a paper on Egypt. Does anyone know of some books?” Very specific questions may get answered, but this sort of annoyance is usually ignored. Alas, the students who do this sort of thing are not likely to be reading this textbook anyway.
The World-Wide Web
Most students have at least a passing familiarity with the World-Wide Web. If you have never use the Web, then it is probably best to get a friend to help. Most college, university and public libraries have staff who would be willing to get you started. The World-Wide Web, at its simplest, is a graphical, interactive, interface to the Internet. Web creators author documents in HTML (hypertext markup language) and place them on servers; browser (or client) programs, such as Internet Explorer and Netscape Communicator allow users to access this material. The Web usually is easy enough to use that only a rudimentary understanding of how it works is necessary to be successful.
As servers and clients have become more powerful, web pages are including more material beyond straight graphics and html. To access these pages, you might have to download and install plug-ins. There are myriad plug-ins, such as Real Audio, Shockwave, Quicktime, and Adobe Acrobat that enhance animation, interactive applications, and audio capabilities. The web pages for Netscape (www.netscape.com) and Internet Explorer (www.microsoft.com) both contain links to plug-ins, and most pages that use them also will indicate where they can be downloaded.
In the section on Conducting Research there is detailed information on how to find what you want, as well as evaluate what you find on the WWW.
FTPs, Gophers, MU*s and other creatures
For most historians, e-mail and the world-wide web meet almost all needs. There are other Internet applications you might encounter or wish to use.
File Transfer Protocol is a method to upload and download files to a server. Any type of file can be transferred. Downloads are now easily accomplished with the WWW, and most browsers can also access FTP sites. Thus only individuals involved in frequent file transfers or needing to upload (copy from a local to a distant computer) files tend to use the software. One thing worth noting is that files on FTP and occasionally web sites may be compressed to save space and reduce transfer speeds. Some files are in self-extracting archives, and need only be executed. You may well, however, encounter files that are “zipped;” these files have a zip suffix, such as coolstuff.zip. There are many decompression utilities available via the Internet; one popular program is available at www.winzip.com. If you know what you want, Fast FTP Search (ftpsearch.lycos.com) is quite useful.
Accessing material via the Internet was initially dominated by a utility called Gopher—develop at the University of Minnesota and named after their mascot. Gopher is text-based, but can display directory structures and content more readily than FTP. The WWW has almost entirely replaced Gopher, for better or for worse. Your WWW browser can view Gopher sites, so if you ever do encounter one, it is not a problem. If you want to visit the increasingly dusty gopher-space, go to gopher://gopher.tc.umn.edu/.
Internet Relay Chat allows real-time communication over the Internet. While useful for on-line conferencing and arranged meetings, most historians prefer e-mail.
MU*s are multi-user domains designed to allow people to interact in a shared “virtual” space. MU*s are mostly used for games, and come in a variety of odd sounding formats including MUDs (multi-user domains) and MOOs (MUD Object Oriented). There have been some academic uses of MOOs, which allow a reader, via text commands to wander an area and look at objects and interact. MOOs allow users to ask for a textual description of a room, pick up objects (again with text only), and talk to others. They offer all the excitement of the first interactive, purely textual games where action goes something like this:
Player: Cast find object spell.
Computer: You see a knife.
Player: Pick up knife.
Computer: You have the knife.
Player: Look at knife.
Computer: The knife gleams and is very sharp.
Player: Stab Dragon.
Computer: The Dragon doesn’t like that.
Player: Stab Dragon.
Computer: Dragon kills you.
Computer: Game over. MOOs are doomed in the face of graphic interactive environments.
Telnet allows a user to access a remote computer and emulate a terminal to control activity on the computer. With the exception of e-mail, most historians have little use for Telnet and are find the commands and problems overly substantial.
Usenet newsgroups (not to be confused with discussion groups or listservs) are a large network of groups arranged by topics of interest. The discussions reside on central computers and you can normally access only those subscribed to by your Internet provider. A newsreader is needed to access the groups, but one is provided with Internet Explorer and Netscape Communicator. Usenet allows users to read and post messages, and arranges the material within groups by thread. Thus in the group sci.archaeology, one might find a thread about the archaeology of slave houses. Usenet is chaotic, and little used by professional historians. While there are worthwhile discussions, mostly there is noise. If for example, you look for information about Egyptian pyramids, you will mostly find talk of aliens, ufo’s and conspiracies. In all fairness, it should be noted that the technical disciplines use Usenet for very serious purposes, and the latest hardware innovations often appear there first. If you feel the urge, I highly recommend accessing Usenet via a carefully worded search at one of the Usenet index sites on the WWW such as Dejanews at www.deja.com.