Knowledge unbounded: virtual encyclopaedias
June 21, 1995
This article was published in Perth's Sunday Times (technology section) in August, 1995. In it, I introduce readers to search engines, and "virtual encyclopaedias" as I called them - while alluding to the Wikipedia of today, the article suggests the entire internet is the "virtual encyclopaedia".

For years, the standard answer to the question "Where can I find an encyclopaedia on the Internet?" has been "there isn't one". The traditional makers of encyclopaedias understandably wanted to be paid for their efforts, a wish largely incompatible with both Internet technology and ideology.

Recent advances in Internet technology have changed all this. While encyclopaedia makers continue to hang back, software innovation has made it possible for many Internet users to hook up to online services, type in their subject of interest, and wait (typically around ten seconds) for the service to locate as much information as it can on that subject.

While this process is very similar to using a library's online catalogue, new online services utilise the Internet's popular World Wide Web, with its graphical, hypertextual and multimedia abilities. Users are able to peruse a list of references located by the service, click on those that might be of interest, and view the associated information.

The arrival of the Web permitted GUI-based navigation of online information, but it did not rectify a key problem preventing simple searching for information: the Internet had no index. There was no fast-findit that made life easy - to find information, users had to know where to look, or spend time searching manually.

This problem was rectified with the invention of Internet robots - programs that scour the Internet for information and index whatever they find. These programs work automatically (and tirelessly!) and presently locate up to 5,000 new pages of information per day.

However, this posed another problem: how to locate an item of interest, when it is mixed in with 4,999 other pages of information - and 9,999 pages a single day later. Enter the search engine: a program that speedily searches the robot-generated indexes for keywords or phrases entered by the user.

The final hurdle - how to transmit those keywords or phrases (known as queries) from the user to the search engine - has been gracefully vaulted by Web browser software that allows users to submit information to online services.

The result: with a few clicks and a keyword, Internet users are able to quickly locate large amounts of high-quality information. This, coupled with the vast amounts of information available on the net, means instant encyclopaedia.

The advantages are many; here is a source of information that grows every second, can be navigated with a mouse, and can be accessed 24 hours a day, every day. It draws upon a world-wide body of knowledge, and delivers its information complete with sound, pictures and even animation and video. Best of all, the net is contemporary; information contained on it is constantly being improved and updated.

These capabilities make the Internet an ideal tool for inquisitive minds, students, researchers and the curious alike. Add to this the Internet's capability for two-way communication, permitting the posing of questions and discussion of any particular topic, and suddenly the net surpasses even the blackboard in educational potential.

If all this isn't enough to make you rush out and get connected, consider the price. Internet access costs a fraction of the price for a single set of encyclopaedias, and on the net, learning is only the beginning.

The Internet is rapidly becoming the way to find and disseminate information. Virtual encyclopaedias afford powerful information discovery abilities; abilities that are certainly advantageous in today's demanding world, and will be a distinct necessity in the evolving knowledge-based world of tomorrow.

If you're already online and have web access, you might want to try these:

A word of caution: yes, there is information on the net that may be considered inappropriate. Using the net without heed of this fact is abusing the privilege; explore with caution, and at your own peril.