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Wide-Area Information Servers

Now you know there are hundreds of databases and library catalogs you can search through. But as you look, you begin to realize that each seems to have its own unique method for searching. If you connect to several, this can become a pain. Gophers reduce this problem somewhat.

Wide-area information servers promise another way to zero in on information hidden on the Net. In a WAIS, the user sees only one interface -- the program worries about how to access information on dozens, even hundreds, of different databases. You give a WAIS a word and it scours the net looking for places where it's mentioned. You get a menu of documents, each ranked according to how relevant to your search the WAIS thinks it is.

Like gophers, WAIS "client" programs can already be found on many public-access Internet sites. If your system has a WAIS client, type


at the command prompt and hit enter (the "s" stands for "simple"). If it doesn't, telnet to bbs.oit.unc.edu, which is run by the University of North Carolina At the "login:" prompt, type


and hit enter. You'll be asked to register and will then get a list of "bulletins," which are various files explaining how the system works. When done with those, hit your Q key and you'll get another menu. Hit 4 for the "simple WAIS client," and you'll see something like this:

SWAIS                          Source Selection          Sources: 23#
Server                         Source                             Cost
001:   [           archie.au]  aarnet-resource-guide              Free
002:   [    archive.orst.edu]  aeronautics                        Free
003:   [nostromo.oes.orst.ed]  agricultural-market-news           Free
004:   [sun-wais.oit.unc.edu]  alt-sys-sun                        Free
005:   [    archive.orst.edu]  alt.drugs                          Free
006:   [    wais.oit.unc.edu]  alt.gopher                         Free
007:   [sun-wais.oit.unc.edu]  alt.sys.sun                        Free
008:   [    wais.oit.unc.edu]  alt.wais                           Free
009:   [    archive.orst.edu]  archie-orst.edu                    Free
010:   [           archie.au]  archie.au-amiga-readmes            Free
011:   [           archie.au]  archie.au-ls-lRt                   Free
012:   [           archie.au]  archie.au-mac-readmes              Free
013:   [           archie.au]  archie.au-pc-readmes               Free
014:   [ pc2.pc.maricopa.edu]  ascd-education                     Free
015:   [           archie.au]  au-directory-of-servers            Free
016:   [   cirm2.univ-mrs.fr]  bib-cirm                           Free
017:   [  cmns-sun.think.com]  bible                              Free
018:   [      zenon.inria.fr]  bibs-zenon-inria-fr                Free


<space> selects, w for keywords, arrows move, <return> searches, q quits, ?

Each line represents a different database (the .au at the end of some of them means they are in Australia; the .fr on the last line represents a database in France). And this is just the first page! If you type a capital K, you'll go to the next page (there are several pages). Hitting a capital J will move you back a page.

The first thing you want to do is tell the WAIS program which databases you want searched. To select a database, move the cursor bar over the line you want (using your down and up arrow keys) and hit your space bar. An asterisk will appear next to the line number. Repeat this until you've selected all of the databases you want searched. Then hit your W key, after which you'll be prompted for the key words you're looking for. You can type in an entire line of these words -- separate each with a space, not a comma.

Hit return, and the search begins.

Let's say you're utterly fascinated with wheat. So you might select agricultural-market-news to find its current world price. But you also want to see if it has any religious implications, so you choose the Bible and the Book of Mormon. What do you do with the stuff? Select recipes and usenet-cookbook. Are there any recent Supreme Court decisions involving the plant? Chose supreme-court. How about synonyms? Try roget-thesaurus and just plain thesaurus.

Now hit w and type in wheat. Hit enter, and the WAIS program begins its search. As it looks, it tells you whether any of the databases are offline, and if so, when they might be ready for a search. In about a minute, the program tells you how many hits it's found. Then you get a new menu, that looks something like this:


#    Score  SourceTitleLines
001: [1000] (roget-thesaurus) #465. [results of comparison. 1] Di 19
002: [1000] (roget-thesaurus) #609. Choice. -- N. choice, option; 36
003: [1000] (roget-thesaurus) #465. [results of comparison. 1] Di 19
004: [1000] (roget-thesaurus) #609. Choice. -- N. choice, option; 36
005: [1000] (recipes)  aem@mthvax Re: MONTHLY: Rec.Food.Recipes 425
006: [1000] ( Book_of_Mormon) Mosiah 9:96
007: [1000] ( Book_of_Mormon) 3 Nephi 18:185
008: [1000] (agricultural-ma) Re: JO GR115, WEEKLY GRAIN82
009: [ 822] (agricultural-ma) Re: WA CB351 PROSPECTIVE PLANTINGS 552
010: [ 800] (        recipes) kms@apss.a Re: REQUEST: Wheat-free, Suga 35
011: [ 750] (agricultural-ma) Re: WA CB101 CROP PRODUCTION258
012: [ 643] (agricultural-ma) Re: SJ GR850 DAILY NAT GRN SUM72
013: [ 400] (        recipes) pat@jaamer Re: VEGAN: Honey Granola63
014: [ 400] (        recipes) jrtrint@pa Re: OVO-LACTO: Sourdough/Trit 142

Each of these represents an article or citing that contains the word wheat, or some related word. Move the cursor bar (with the down and up arrow keys) to the one you want to see, hit enter, and it will begin to appear on your screen. The "score" is a WAIS attempt to gauge how closely the citing matches your request. Doesn't look like the Supreme Court has had anything to say about the plant of late!

Now think of how much time you would have spent logging onto various databases just to find these relatively trivial examples.

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