The Virtual Pathfinder: A World Wide Web Guide to Library Research

Article excerpt

Like many libraries, we at the University of New Brunswick (UNB) are slowly groping our way away from using paper and toward relying more on computer technologies to distribute information. Perhaps foremost among these technologies is the World Wide Web. The library has had a Web server since the very early days of Mosaic, and the library's WebMaster (the author of this article) also serves as the WebMaster for the university. We have come to rely on the Web. We use it to access our catalog, census data, and the many databases we mount on our SilverPlatter Electronic Reference Library server.

From Paper to the Web

As e developed our Web service, it became obvious that we should have subject guides to the items in our collections. Librarians have long been familiar with the paper publication known as the Pathfinder. Its purpose is to guide students to sources of information on a given topic. Information on the locations of indexes, bibliographies, monographs, etc., is prepared and formatted on paper handouts. An undergraduate beginning a first research paper in, say, psychology, would consult the Psychology Pathfinder to find a step-by-step description of how to do the research for the paper.

It seemed natural, at first, that we would simply take our prepared Pathfinders and place them on the Web. We only had to convert the WordPerfect files to ASCII and add HTML (hypertext markup language) to the files. This would be tedious but not difficult. I was actually on my way to start converting the documents when I rejected this idea. Primary among the reasons for doing so was that keeping the HTML versions in sync with the paper versions didn't promise to be a task filled with joy. Does this suggest natural laziness? Perhaps. But the lessons learned from watching too many bad movies made from good books also come to mind.

When you set out to design something, you must respect the medium in which you are working. A good movie is not made by filming a good book. Designing for the Web is different from writing a paper document. The authors of the best Web sites understand this difference. A Web Pathfinder should not be a mere copy of its paper forerunner. A well-designed Web-based Pathfinder must utilize the strengths of the Web. It should be automatically updated, contain hypertext links to additional resources, and link to information available on the Internet.

Fortunately, several technologies became available to UNB at about the time this project was in the planning stage. We had purchased the Unicorn system from SIRSI to be our new library system. One crucial component of this was a Z39.50 server. Also made available to us was a Web-to-Z39.50 gateway, which was written (mostly in perl) by Harold Finkbeiner of Stanford University. It was easily modifiable and communicated well with our SIRSI server. We discovered that we could send search statements to the gateway from hypertext links in documents, and they executed correctly.

More information and code for the gateway can be obtained at URL: We found it to be very simple to install and use. It required little modification. The gateway, however, will work on UNIX servers only.

The Pathfinder Perl Script

With these pieces in place, it only remained to build a CGI (common gateway interface) script (again written in perl) that would build an HTML document based on the subject selected.

The initial version of the Pathfinder perl script was very simple and easy to write. By examining searches returned from the Z39.50 gateway and from other Internet resources, it could determine how to compose a URL for any type of search. …