from the International Botanical Congress Special Edition of the NHBS Mailorder Bookstore Catalog
reprinted here with permission of NHBS, © 1999 Scott Russell. This was last updated April 18, 2003 for URL changes (notes in square brackets ).
A couple of years ago I saw "web-years" defined as three months, so it has been about a "web-decade" since I first was introduced to the Internet. That experience gave no hint of the pervasive effect the Internet was to have by the close of the millennium. In early 1995, I visited the Internet through a telnet connection with the University mainframe over a 14.4K modem using "Gopher" technology. About 10 to 20 options appeared on my telnet screen from which I made selection after selection; my formerly friendly PC acted like a teletype and the entire screen was rewritten with each selection. These choices were rarely the fastest way to find anything, but the only way, unless you knew the exact address! If I didn't find the right link, it would take forever to find it! ...like one big primitive, text adventure game.... That quiet time was shortly before I discovered the Web (August 1995). The university offered free Internet access and bundled it with my first copy of Netscape (version 1.1--not even "tables" were possible at that time--requiring an upgrade to 1.22! at http://www.netscape.com/) At the time, Yahoo! was a college student escapade at Stanford using a modest server and operating out of a dorm room (needless to say, it did not even have its own domain yet! It was at [old URL, no longer functional] http://akebono.stanford.edu/yahoo/)
When I first saw the Web, I was struck by its graphical nature and its ability to inform people. I fell instantly in love with the new Information Age, clicked on my department - Botany and Microbiology, at the University of Oklahoma - and saw a primitive Web page, wondering who had created it and who was in charge. I found out that I was in charge of it if I wanted to be. Within a day, an email arrived from Steve Wolf (California State University, Stanislaus) directed to the OU Webmaster, which was forwarded to me. Someone (and I probably will never know who) had posted one of Steve’s pages without permission or attribution, and he rightfully asked that the University remove the single page that we had posted on botany; it was his page and an old one at that! A distant successor of this is now CSU-BioWeb (http://arnica.csustan.edu/), which still exists today.
That same month I downloaded an HTML editor from a young bank programmer who wrote it between jobs. The program was HotDog and within a year he was CEO of Sausage Software - now a very successful business (http://www.sausage.com/) occupying a multistory building and employing nearly 100 people in downtown Melbourne. I fashioned my first pages from raw text using a near-beta copy of HotDog. My bug report was answered personally by Steve, who was a one-man company at the time. Making the web page done, it took me darn near a day to figure out how to upload it on the university web server. The people who were in charge just couldn’t tell untrained people, like me, how to upload a file (at least in a language I could understand)!
Over the years I have accumulated a number of plant resources (hand-crafted on a robust 386 until November 1997). I got my Ethernet connection in February 1996 and established my botanical "link-of-the-day" site. I knew I could not attack the whole web in a few days, so I would add only one link per day. That sounded modest enough…but it has been three years now and the site is burgeoning. During that time I even managed to take a yearlong sabbatical and swore off the site so I could do research. Due to the industry and enthusiasm of Leigh Fulghum, who already had her own excellent site (http://www.floridaplants.com/), for all but a month-and-a-half of this time there have been new links daily. She continues to this day as permanent guest hostess. The site now has nearly 800 links at http://www.ou.edu/cas/botany-micro/bot-linx/.
The Internet revolution has been swift, rapid and no one is left outside of its wake. Information has never been as available as it is today. What does that mean? Although the growth of the web is exponential, and commercial opportunities abound, there is no guarantee that your particular interest will be represented on the net.
I get inundated with emails from school children, amateurs and professionals asking for information about plants – evidence of the navigational difficulties that almost all web users grapple with. I try to do my best at finding the data they require from sites I know, or one or two of my favorite search engines. I use Metacrawler (http://www.metacrawler.com/) for most searches (it compiles and fairly meaningfully ranks up to 10 finds from up to 7 search engines) and Altavista for exact phrases (I use quotation marks to enclose the phrase for exact matches only - see their site at http://www.altavista.com/). The most frustrating questions I get are the effects of growing plants with music, the effects of light on photosynthesis (usually using faded cellophane, so the wavelengths passed are even in doubt) and plants participating in purposeful activity (like searching for water or light). Ross Koning has great teaching pages and an excellent one on music and plants (http://koning.ecsu.ctstateu.edu/music.html; he does a great job explaining how to do some good experiments on plant response to touch using the sensitive plant, Mimosa!).
Everyone should be able to find something on the Web. The next question is that of quality, accuracy and relevance. Rarely do I get a question from a student that would not be better answered by a textbook, but that is changing. Increasingly the textbooks are moving illustrations and supplementary materials online as teaching aids and they have their own suggestions of relevant links. There’s a tendency to think that everything will be on the Web eventually, but there is a limit. The limit is not one of hardware or software, but just plain interest and enthusiasm--time and money. Development of material on the Internet can be done for free by people of passion and industry. Free web sites abound on the Internet (Geocities at http://www.geocities.com/, for example, currently offers 5MB of free space and over 50 "community" interest areas), and numerous specialty sites on plants have arisen there as well. In thinking of this, one example that comes to my mind is Grandfather’s nearly 1-cm thick 78 rpm records; how long will I have to wait before I see these on CD? Occasionally, I get indignant emails when someone does not find what they are looking for on the Web. When I explain that it is not there, to the best of my knowledge, sometimes I am challenged with denial and disbelief. (Once it was pointed out to me that it was just because the government had not gotten to it yet!) Why wouldn’t something that I really want to look at right now not already be on the Web, developed at someone else’s expense, for me to download for free?
When I returned from sabbatical last July, I noticed that my entire strategy for finding information had changed. If I did not have a specific piece of information in a book on my bookshelf, I was at my computer, checking the OU library for the resource or going to the Internet, perhaps to access the online database to scholarly plant publications through the National Agricultural Library’s AGRICOLA (http://www.nal.usda.gov/ag98/) or look at a journal online (I had trouble finding these electronic journals, so I put a master list at [old URL, no longer functional] http://www.ou.edu/cas/botany-micro/ejournals/ [now at: http://www.e-journals.org/botany/]).
The growth of online resources has been tremendous, with an immediacy and availability of information from publication sources and governments that libraries could never match, and desktop resources that are difficult to imagine. Molecular biologists have been quick to capitalize on the value of sharing and comparing gene sequences, protein structures and MedLine citations. Model organisms, including Arabidopsis, beans and maize, each have extensive and information rich sites. In only a few short years, search engines are cataloging full-text pages into databases of over 100 million web pages; in this rapidly advancing world, it is hard to remember how staggering an accomplishment this is! Twenty years ago I was xeroxing notecards in order to cross-catalog references and I can now scan full years of publications looking for a key taxon, for example, in seconds. But how accessible are the resources that do not migrate to the Internet?
Internet resources have supplanted past technologies, and information from the Internet is readily available to the majority of the world's scientists. A major challenge, however, is the unevenness of that development. First, the mere fact that a resource is needed does not mean that it will be created. Many of the most useful web sites in plant biology education are non-commercial - a high proportion created and managed by talented individuals who tend to the pages in their spare time. Second, the quality of a resource is difficult to assess for most viewers. Beyond the details of webpage construction, the scientific value of a site can be best assessed by peers— but web sites, with rare exceptions, are not peer reviewed. Third, the economic status of scientists' institutions or countries tends to exacerbate web access problems, typically with slower data transmission speeds, and in some countries national telephone monopolies impose toll rates that would scare users worldwide. A pernicious danger is that scientists and students from developing countries who would benefit the most from communicating with the rest of the world are among the least likely to be able to afford it.
My impression of botany on the web is that the quality and quantity of information available is increasing exponentially, but that the ability of individuals to provide the highest quality data is drastically limited. A lucky few have garnered grant support for their activities, whereas for others it has been an adjunct duty that overfilled already full days, or a late night hobby, or sometimes more an obsession. There is a constant demand for new resources—preferably free resources—and in botany, this has created a model that is difficult to finance. Advertising is possible, but many of the educational sites are on educational domains (*.edu) or non-profit organizations (*.org). As usual, academia has been quick to adapt in some ways (like making Ethernet connections available) but slow to reward those who spend a significant amount of their time developing worldwide educational resources outside of established programs.
New standards for Web communication are already being developed that will allow the definition of Web devices that we never dreamed of: everything from scientific equipment to coffee makers will be within the potential of XML, the future replacement language for HTML. Many Web developers will lose enthusiasm as the technical skills required in new languages makes developing web pages difficult to pursue without a budget and computer support personnel. Another resource that seems to be depleted is the pool of successful developers prepared to continue. Exponential success brings with it exponentially spiraling demands to develop increasingly improved and expanded resources.
As we witness the dramatic growth of Internet resources, libraries may seem increasingly arcane. If history repeats itself, though, the hardcopy may be the only lasting value. During the next change of millennia, our distant successors will still be able to "access" the data provided in the slower, paper-based data devices that we call books and periodicals. Although bulky and prone to biological decay, they will not be subject to the many generations of data format changes that we will witness in our lifetimes. If they access them digitally, it will not be in HTML, nor on web sites, nor on bulky floppy disks, nor any other medium currently being used. Whilst the Internet is likely to prove an enduring medium, the informational structures that carry content will probably continue to evolve at breakneck speed. As users struggle with the problems of electronic form, the inherent stability of printed materials will ensure that the tremendous resources held in libraries continue to be conserved and consulted.
Kudos to the following sites that I have followed with pleasure as they have grown over the years: