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Presented to the Mid-America Conference on History, meeting at the University of Kansas in Lawrence, Kansas, September 17, 1992.
Transmitted through computer telecommunications.
Professor of History
Associate Dean of Arts & Sciences
Mississippi State University
For years, the popular press as written of the forthcoming revolution in information technology, a revolution which would allow persons to communicate with others and to transfer large amounts of data without leaving home. The revolution has begun. Electronic mail (e-mail) is part of this revolution. If all worked well this morning, you saw a demonstration of this marvelous mode of communication. The purpose of this presentation is to alert you to the opportunity to retrieve files from electronic archives located in various parts of the world. Finally, I will explain how to obtain access to them. Although other archives will be mentioned, the internationally-accessible historical archive supported by Mississippi State University will be featured.
Several definitions are in order.
*Telnet* is the means by which a mainframe computer calls another mainframe computer via a telephone line, fiber optic cable, or satellite. Telnetting resembles a telephone call except that two machines are making the call. A common protocol is necessary so that the two machines can communicate with each other. Sometimes, when one is telnetting to an IBM mainframe from a non-IBM mainframe, this becomes an issue. Most computer centers have installed the software necessary to resolve this issue.
FILE TRANSFER PROTOCOL (FTP or ftp) is a special form of telnet, one by which a person can telnet to another computer and retrieve or place one or more files. FTP is the fastest means of transferring a file from one computer to another. Often, the transmission is at the rate of 52,000 BAUD, a speed which allows one to move a 500-page document thousands of miles in seconds. To do so, one must have an account not only on one's local mainframe computer connected to the Internet but also on the computer from which ones plans to retrieve a file. Fortunately, there are a number of computers that allow one to logon as anonymous and to use guest or one's e-mail address as the password. These are called anonymous ftp sites.
Electronic archives accessible through the Internet via FTP are not new. Computer scientists, engineers, and other technical persons have been using them for years. Commonly, the contents of these archives have usually been computer programs or technical files. The U.S. Army maintains the huge Simtel20 electronic archive at White Sands, New Mexico, for example. Most of the programs/files at these sites held little interest to historians, who tend to be more interested in text files or documents.
For those of us who were reading electronic mail discussion lists regularly, it became apparent that historians needed an anonymous FTP site where text files and programs of interest to historians could be stored and retrieved. Discussants had articles, papers, bibliographies, guides to collections, databases, and other materials they were willing to share but sending them through electronic mail was slow and cumbersome. Moreover, electronic mail requires the use of ASCII characters only, unless both the sender and the recipient used an encoding program. Photographic images binary programs, and word processing files written with such programs as WordPerfect could not be sent through e-mail.
Fortunately, Mississippi State University was willing to allocate space on Ra.MsState.Edu (ra.msstate.edu), one of its mainframe computers, and, to provide technical support through its Computing Center. The Department of History and the College of Arts & Sciences was willing to allow one of their historians to dedicate some time to the creation of the anonymous FTP archive. As a Research I/Doctoral I university with both a strong college of liberal arts and sciences and state-of-the-art computer technology, the University was willing and able to further international humanistic scholarship. So, in February, 1991, the archive (docs/history) was born.
No one knew how much interest the archive might arouse nor how large it might become. The initial files were acquired on a haphazard basis, usually as a result of someone offering to send a paper or an article. Other files were added from sources in the public domain. In order to protect the integrity of the mainframe, only the archivist (firstname.lastname@example.org) was allowed to place files into the archive. Contributors either e-mailed the files or allowed the archivist to ftp them from their site. The collection grew into millions of bytes and it became necessary to create subdirectories and a filelist. Because non-Internet users (such as persons on BITNET) were unable to access the archive, instructions for alternative retrieval method had to be posted on e-mail discussion lists. The time necessary to maintain the archive slowed the acquisition process. Moreover, it soon became clear that a single site would be unable to store all the files requested by the international historical profession.
Lynn Nelson of the University of Kansas responded by creating MALIN on kuhub.cc.ukans.edu and began discussions with Mabry and other historians about the possibility of creating specialized FTP archives for historians. MALIN became primarily a medieval history site. To provide continuity, docs/history and MALIN list each other's contents. The longterm goal is to make docs/history on ra.msstate.edu a central or general archive with specialized archives scattered around the globe.
The filelist for docs/history is too long to print here. It is stored as filelist in the directory docs/history on Ra. One can obtain it through FTP or through the alternative method mentioned below. The archive is divided into subdirectories, using the UNIX file structure. Those familiar with MS-DOS will find the UNIX file structure to be very similar. When one ftps to ra.msstate.edu, logs on as anonymous, and uses guest as a password, one enters the public [pub] directory. One has to tell Ra to change directories [cd] to docs/history. The command is cd docs/history. This directory contains the filelist and a list of the subdirectories. These subdirectories are: articles, bibliographies, databases [information on historical databases in Canada, Europe, and the United States], diaries, directories [of historians who use e-mail], e-documents [infor- mation on documents in electronic form], gifs [photographs], libraries [a list of Internet-accessible libraries and menu-driven programs to access them], netuse [information on how to use computer networks], newsletters, papers, programs, resources [information on electronic resources], songs [historical], and vietnam.war [primarily the logfiles of a Vietnam War discussion list]. Space and time do not permit a description of the contents of docs/history.
MALIN is a large archive as well. Lynn Nelson, who is attending the conference, can explain the contents of MALIN.
To do a ftp, you only have to know a few commands. Here are some basic commands with an
explanation of them in brackets: cd [change directory]
DIR [display a directory]
ls -FC [list in columns, showing which are files, directories, or programs. Directories are marked with a /; programs with a *]
get [command the distant computer to transfer a file]
mget * [Interactively answer yes or no for retrieval of each file in a directory]
bye [end ftp connection]
quit [end ftp connection]
binary [You MUST specify binary for a GIF, program, or any binary file]
For those who are on BITNET and cannot do a FTP, one can retrieve documents by sending electronic mail to BITFTP@PUCC, using the commands listed above. Instructions on how to do this are in the file ftp.info stored in docs/history/netuse. For those conferees who are interested, someone there can retrieve this document for you.
These comments barely cover the fundamentals but I will answer questions for you. We have an interactive connection established for that purpose. If you do not get your question answered or would like additional information, contact me later either through electronic mail (my userid and address are listed above) or via snail mail. The latter address is Don Mabry, Associate Dean, College of Arts and Sciences, Mississippi State University, Mississippi State, MS 39762. E-mail is much faster, by the way. Transit time between Mississippi State and KU is about 257 milliseconds.
Questioner for the audience: cdell= Valentine Smith, University of Missouri, Kansas
djm1=Don Mabry, Mississippi State University
Message from Talk_Daemon@Ra.MsState.Edu at 10:03 ... ntalk: connection requested by email@example.com.
ntalk: respond with: ntalk firstname.lastname@example.org
ntalk email@example.com -----------------------------------------------------------------
- [Connection established]
djm1: Hello. How is it going?
cdell: Good morning. This is "Val."
djm1: Ready for questions and answers?
cdell: Give us a few sentences definition of FTP and how it works
djm1: A few sentences for a verbose person?
FTP is an electronic connection between computers but which uses a special software so that the user and the machines can take shortcuts. One uses the command ftp [site] to reach an archive. From that point, one logs in and then either gets or puts a file. It is an extremely fast means of transmitting information. Moreover, it allows one to transmit any file stored in an electronic format.
cdell: Who can submit or put a file into an FTP site?
djm1: Depends upon the local rules. Most sites have a gatekeeper. At Ra, I have to do the putting, so files have t be sent to me first. Some sites allow persons to put files into a public directory. Later, they are moved to an appropriate subdirectory.
cdell: What are some examples of major documentary or bibliographies at your site?
djm1: We have a bibliography on feudalism in the world which was contributed by Haines Brown. We also have a massive biblio on French Socialism.
We also maintain information and lists on the Oxford Text Archive project and the Victoria County History project.
I also have three diaries from the Persian Gulf War. I would also suggest that persons in French studies look at the information on the ARTFL project, a massive archive from which one can extract data (for a fee).
cdell: How does one find out what you have at your site?
djm1: ftp the document called filelist from this site. If one cannot do FTP, one can use BITFTP@PUCC. In this case, one mails to BITFTP@PUCC, leaving the subject blank, and using the FTP commands in the body of the message. PUCC will send back the appropriate file.
I also post information on HISTORY@UBVM AND and on L-CHA@UQAM, the Canadian Historical Association list.
cdell: Another question - how will archive integrity be maintained, say ten years from now?
djm1: Difficult question. I back up files onto floppy disks. The National Archives of the U.S. faces the problem of changes in the media. I think we are so new at this that we are not sure how we are going to solve the problem. The advantage is that ASCII characters are not likely to change and text files are often stored in ASCII. Any machine can read ASCII.
cdell: Can you tell us about the limits of space you have?
djm1: Fortunately, Mississippi State is commited to providing space. There has to be a
limit but the issue has not arisen. Because we are strong in computation fields (our art
department works in high-end computer visualization, for example), I suspect that the
limit will not be reached for some time. When it arrives, we'll find a way to solve the
problem. However, we are doubling the capacity of this machine and the President is in
favor of the archive. That helps!
The longterm solution is for other archivce es, such as MALIN at KU, to be created. That way, we can distribute the load.
What we did at Mississippi State is meet an immediate need and demonstrate the efficacy of such an archive.
If conferees have unpublished papers they would like to store here, mail them to me. I can also accept diskettes, by the way, so one doesn't have to have an e-mail account.
For copyrighted materials, I must have permission.
cdell: OK, Thank you for your time and input We are about break
djm1: Hope that the session this morning was helpful to all. cdell: Yes it was, it has generated quite a discussion. Take care.
djm1: We send our best from Mississippi. Bye
cdell: Bye Connection closed. Exiting]