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FTP: full-text publishing?

Internet users are familiar with the acronym FTP, which stands for "File Transfer Protocol." The FTP protocol is part of the TCP/IP suite that enables communication among remote computers connected by a common telecommunications link.

Local system administrators can establish an FTP directory on their local computer and thereby allow "anonymous" access to the contents of the directory while maintaining the security of other data in the computer. Files placed in the FTP directory are accessible to anyone with network access to the computer. No special accounts or passwords are required. Users log on to the computer using the user I.D. "anonymous" and the password "guest" or their actual Internet user I.D. Thus, this form of file transfer is sometimes caned "anonymous FTP."

All FTP sites share files, and some encourage users to contribute files of their own creation, thus expanding the library of available resources. Larger FTP sites are sometimes known as archive sites because they serve as general repositories for text, software, or data files.

We may do well to think of FTP sites as public, electronic cubbyholes where users can freely exchange information of all sorts: text, software, and data. According to recent statistics published by Merit Network, Inc., file transfer using FTP accounts for 27 percent of all network traffic in packets and 50 percent of all traffic in bytes. Clearly, FTP is a major and successful network application.

To publish means "to prepare and issue (printed material) for public distribution or sale" (The American Heritage Dictionary, Second College Edition). When thinking about electronic publishing, perhaps FTP does not readily come to mind. CD-ROMS and electronic journals and newsletters typically fall under the rubric of electronic publishing. But, in fact, FTP may be the largest electronic publishing system in the world!

The Internet provides access to more than 1,000 FTP sites containing over 2.1 million electronic files of all types. Of these, 7 to 8 percent are text files. That translates into a collection of some 147,000 to 168,000 text files. Not a bad library!

By posting these files in FTP directories, the authors' intend to "publish" the information by making it available for public distribution (on the Internet, at no cost to the user). The types of documents available via FTP range widely from classic book-length literary works, contemporary fiction, poetry, and lyrics, to e-journals and newsletters, directories, lists, indexes, technical reports, white papers, documentation, government documents, public laws, supreme court hearings, and public testimony - the list goes on.

The electronic formats of these documents vary as well. FTP users are likely to find ASCII files, word-processing files, PostScript files, DOS and Apple files, hypertext stacks, troff files, SGML files, and TeX type-setting files, among others.

The publication of electronic files via FTP is certainly not limited to text. In fact, most of the files are nontextual - applications programs for IBM PCs and work-alikes, Apple computers, workstations, and main-frames of various flavors. Systems software, executable software, statistical packages, painting and drawing programs, games and much more are available via FTP.

Preparation and Access

Our working definition of publication" states that the materials are prepared" for issuance and distribution. The degree of preparation evident in these FTP publications varies as widely as the content and format, and if our worldwide FIT electronic publication system has one weakness, this is it.

Many documents reflect great care in preparation: the contents are complete, well written, free of efforts, and formatted for ease of use. This represents the high end of the scale; other publications are more "casual" and prone to all the problems of amateur writers, editors, and publishers. And some well-intended users, eager to share their text, software, or data with the Internet community, seem to have little knowledge of, practice in, or regard for basic elements of style. This is the ultimate personal publishing system, and all the foibles of personal publishing are to be found.

Other problems afflict FTP publications as well. For example, the name of the file and the title of the document are likely to be different, and the name of the file may not even be that informative. Cryptic titles or numerical naming systems that are completely understandable to the author are just as likely to be unintelligible to browsers of the great FTP library. Identical files may reside at different FTP sites with different names; conversely, identical file names may represent different files.

To compound these problems, the FTP library is distributed among computers around the world. Furthermore, these materials are not cataloged and no system currently provides easy access. Some FTP sites provide a modicum of descriptive information, often in the form of README files and indexes. However, fewer than one FTP directory in nine has a README file or an Index.

Systems such as WAIS (Wide Area Information Server) by Thinking Machines Corporation; Archie, developed at McGill University; and Gopher, from the University of Minnesota provide a degree of access to the distributed electronic FTP library, but all of these systems have limitations. No universal, public access search-and-retrieval system exists.

With all of its limitations and inherent problems, I have come to consider FTP as a primary method of electronic publication. I was won over to this position one day when, within minutes of receiving an electronic mail message announcing the availability of a new book, I was able to FTP the file, print it on a local Post-Script printer, place the pages in a ring binder, and place my new acquisition on my shelf - all within the span of about ten minutes!

Is FTP a method of electronic publishing? I'll let my bookshelf bear witness to that.

Erik Jul is the communications manager in the Office of Research at OCLC.
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Title Annotation:File Transfer Protocol
Author:Jul, Erik
Publication:Computers in Libraries
Date:May 1, 1992
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