Caught in the net

8th November 1996 at 00:00
I've been to four American universities - and that's just this morning. If you're using the Internet, one of the first concepts to grasp is that geographical distance means nothing. Using the Internet you can reach information in the University of Southern California as easily as you can at the school around the corner.

Well-funded, technically ambitious universities in America might be stockpiling on-line information for use by their own students, but it doesn't stop these rich resources being accessible to anyone else.

For example, there are a number of English departments in universities in America which have developed capacious libraries of novels, plays, essays, critical theory, teaching plans and bibliographies, all available on-line.

Visit the University of Columbia, New York, which has a generous selection of literary texts in its public library. There are a number of terms used to describe these copies of poems, novels and plays held on the Internet - electronic texts, e-texts, digital books - but what they are in practice is computer files that hold the texts of books, large versions of the kind of documents you produce on your word processor. If you want to see one, click on the appropriate book title and it should appear on your screen.

Poems on screen might seem a manageable proposition, but how would you use a hefty Victorian novel on the Internet? If you want to experiment go to the English department's site at Carnegie Mellon university, Pittsburgh, where you'll find a large database of literary texts, including sections for teachers. Here, in the library's fiction list, you'll find hundreds of on-line novels, including Thomas Hardy's Jude the Obscure. If you click on the title, your machine will begin to download the novel.

As this is a simple text document, without any graphics or elaborate fonts, this will happen quickly, leaving you with a single file holding the entire contents of the novel.

You're unlikely to want to read from the screen, so your first step will be to save it on to your computer, which is done by using the "save" options from your Internet browser. Once this great sea of text has been saved and you've disconnected from the Internet, you'll be able to print out chapters and re-work or analyse sections of the book.

If you're looking for a specific quote or examples of how a particular word is used repeatedly, you can search the text using a word processor's "find" facility. Apart from allowing you to examine a set text, these massive Internet libraries can offer plenty of background information, with links to other works by the same author or writers from the period.

For example, if you were teaching Geoffrey Chaucer, you might be able to learn more about other middle English writers from the University of Virginia's "Middle English Collection". You might not want to go out and buy all these secondary texts, but you might like to browse through them on the Internet for free or save them as reference material.

If you want a starting point showing the range of available electronic texts, you could try an index of English literature sites created by the University of Connecticut.

As well as links to the blockbuster libraries, this also has an index of Internet sites listed by author, from Jane Austen to W B Yeats.

University of Columbia, New York http:www.columbia.eduacisbartlebyindex.htmlu

The English Server at Carnegie Mellon University: http:english www.hss.cmu.edu

An index of English literature web sites, University of Connecticuthttp:www.ucc.uconn.eduhblad128engweb.html

University of Virginia's Middle English Collection http:etext.virginia.edumideng.browse.html

Any ideas or comments on the Internet and education to tesnettes1.demon. co.uk.

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