Researching on the Big www dot com
(c) Linda Haas Davenport
(Articles written for Washington Co, NC Genealogy Society Newsletter and the Mt. Echo Newspaper, Yellville, Marion Co, AR. These articles were intended for people who had not yet gotten on the web or who were new to it)
A while back I was talking on the phone to a friend who was getting ready to take a trip back home to visit her Mother. She told me she really had to run because she needed to get on the web and pick up a copy of her family's history to take to her Mom. I was excited for my friend and asked her where she had found the information. She replied "Oh, I haven't found it yet, but it shouldn't take long, should it? Everything's on the web now days".
This idea that everything, including our own personal family's history, can be found on the web is a common misconception. It is true that there is an unbelievable amount of information on the web but by no means everything and certainly not everything found on the web is accurate. Genealogists who are new to the web usually spend days and days floundering around searching for their family's history because of this misconception. Some do get lucky and find information on their family but most do not. In a series of articles I'll give you a realistic look at what you can expect to find and not find on the web and the best way to go about finding what is there.
However, before I do that, let me give you a quick, very simplified explanation of this thing we call "the Web" so that it will be easier to understand what I say later. Its real name is the World Wide Web (www) although you will also hear it called the Internet. To best understand the web, think of it as a spider web or net covering the whole world. Think of all the strands of the web as phone lines and then at every point where the strands of the web meet, picture a huge computer system. This is the web. As you can see the web is immensely huge and no one nation, group or person controls the web. It's much like our idea of the old wild west - uncontrolled, untamed, wide open and at times dangerous.
The majority of the computers (called servers) on the web in the U.S. are called Internet Service Providers (ISP) and they usually perform three jobs. First and foremost they serve as relay stations for information that is transmitted (or bounced, as it is called) around the world via the web's high speed phone lines. Their second job is to serve as a gateway for individuals or businesses to locally connect to the web. Third they offer storage space for web pages (more about those later). Whether you access the web from home or work or through your local library's computer system the first place you go when you log onto the web is to a local ISP's computer system. Once there you are free to travel all the strands of the web all over the globe.
But, just because we are free to travel the web doesn't mean we can get anywhere if we don't know how to get to where we want to be. Each of the servers on the web is identified with a long string of numbers which works great when computers talk to computers, however, it doesn't work well for us humans. So each server also haas an English name - those www dot coms that everyone keeps mentioning. Just as we have to know someone's address to send them mail or their phone number to call them, we have to know the www dot com of the web pages we want to visit. These site addresses are called URL's (and no I don't have a clue what those initials stand for).
There's those "web pages" again! The web would be a fairly worthless place for most of us if it were nothing except a group of computers talking to one another. It's the web pages and things called hyperlinks that make the web the exciting and informative place it is for us. There are two terms used on the web for the information stored on a server that belongs to an individual or business or other entity - web sites and web pages. The easiest way to understand the difference between the two is to think of the average file cabinet as a web site and all of the papers stored inside the file cabinet as web pages. Web pages are nothing more than information written in a programming language called hypertext that can be read and understood by a program called a browser. The two most common browsers are Netscape and Internet Explorer (IE). Netscape, the first browser program for us common folks, was privately written and released. Internet Explorer comes packaged with Windows and was written by Microsoft. Both programs are free, as are all the upgrades. There are several other browsers out there but these are the two most popular. Some people swear by one and some people by the other. It makes very little difference which one you use - you just have to have browser to be able to move (surf) around the web and be able to see the information found in web pages.
Whew, I'm glad that's all over. You've got a basic understanding of the web now, don't you? Then we'll take a short break and next month we'll talk about Genealogy and the Web.