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Around the Mall & Beyond

The Smithsonian, the world's largest museum and research complex, has yet another address: the World Wide Web

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Today we pay a visit to the virtual Smithsonian, and I see I am going to need some help.

Now, I am not computer illiterate. I have been working with word processors for years. So I was not at all intimidated to discover the new "Smithsonian Without Walls" on the World Wide Web, a part of the Internet. When my dear old Kaypro died at age seven I bought an IBM clone — and discovered that three computer generations had passed in that time. I had to learn the new system from scratch. And I feel pretty good about it except when I hit the wrong key and set an entire 100-page document in boldface.

But now I have apparently stumbled into yet another new world. I am sitting here with Mignon Erixon-Stanford, Internet coordinator (her e-mail address is irmss907@sivm.si.edu, which looks to me like the cat jumped on the keyboard), and she is telling me about the World Wide Web. "All links within the same Web server," explains Mignon, "should be relative, not absolute, because the final product is populated across multiple servers."

Well, as an English major, I should find this easy to decipher since the words are perfectly ordinary, commonly used words. But it is baffling: How do you "populate across"? Fortunately, with Mignon's guidance, I soon learn that I don't have to decipher any of that arcane language to explore the electronic Smithsonian. In fact, it's simple.

Here, in a Smithsonian office on the Mall, I can log onto the World Wide Web. The Web is an electronic publishing forum connected by a system of diverging pathways that my computer knows how to follow so that I don't have to know. And once there, I simply type in another cat-on-the-keys address — http://www.si.edu — and on the screen appears the Smithsonian Institution's home page, with a picture of the Castle under fair skies and a menu that allows me to start exploring the Institution's museums and resources.

You can reach the Smithsonian's home page through any of the commercial Internet providers or through America Online. Incidentally, since June 1993 the Smithsonian has welcomed tens of thousands of electronic visitors to its home page on America Online.

The main difference between our presence on AOL and on the Web lies in how the two are set up. The Web is far more comprehensive — you'll find a lot more to read there; but on America Online we can do some pretty amazing things too; like set up a curator in a "chatroom" or a larger auditorium for some lively electronic discussion. On October 2, from 9 to 10 p.m. (EST), Dwight Bowers from the National Museum of American History will be on-line discussing the American musical theater.

When the Smithsonian launched its home page on the World Wide Web last May, its "Web site" contained more than 1,500 pages and 3,000 photographs. Today, the images and information on it continue to multiply as the Institution's 20 so-called Webmasters add new material to it on a daily basis. In just three months of operation, the site has served up more than five million screens of information. The capacity of the Smithsonian's Web site is almost limitless, and with the Web's vast network of cross-references linking one site to another, the implications for research and scholarship are beyond belief. I wonder what James Smithson would think of this new means we have for the "increase and diffusion of knowledge."

It is hard enough for an old guy like me to grasp the scope of it all. For instance, we were noodling around with the Smithsonian's virtual Enola Gay exhibit, which contains photographs of the physical show at the National Air and Space Museum and quantities of words about B-29 bombers, the controversy over the exhibit, Secretary Heyman's comments (if you have the right equipment you can get a video of him speaking) and other subjects that you can click on. ("Click" is now a transitive verb: you "click" on something when you use your mouse to make a selection by pushing its clicker.)

I clicked on "Hiroshima," and after a two-minute delay got a flood of information. The reason it took awhile is that, as Mignon casually remarked, "We just went to Japan."

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