Dipping their toes in Internet Initiation: Library session for beginners has neophytes going from trepidation to fascination.

January 11, 1998|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,SUN STAFF

Surf the Net? Pamela Slingluff and Isabel Klots had never even put their toes in the water, but yesterday they were ready to sink or swim. It was time to gauge the undertow of all that relentless information coursing through cyberspace.

"Because we don't want to be left out," said Slingluff, 76. "All our children and younger people are sending e-mail and getting all sorts of information. They're keeping up with everything, and we're not."

So, they and eight other newcomers showed up yesterday at the Baltimore County Public Library in Reisterstown for an introduction to the Internet. They came away an hour later a little more comfortable, a little more prepared to keep practicing the right clicks and keystrokes to ease them into the mainstream.

It takes some courage these days to admit you're new to the Internet. Not only is it a realm already inhabited by an estimated 230 million around the world, but the fluency of those people seems to progress by the hour. People in television ads talk blithely of "clicking on icons," and just about every institution of any size seems to tout its Web site address at every opportunity, spouting a jumble of w's, dots, orgs and coms.

As Slingluff said yesterday, "It's all in the air, and I want to know it."

So do plenty of others. Studies cited in a recent issue of Computerworld magazine said that about 31 million Americans already use the Internet, and that 55 million plan to learn within a year or want to find out more about it.

Put an Internet beginner in front of a keyboard and a mouse and at first they move delicately, bringing to mind those middle-agers enrolled in beginner skiing lessons, trembling like fawns while preteen showoffs zip precociously around them.

With the Internet, however, you can do a lot of catching up in a hurry, and about the worst you can do is freeze the computer screen for a few minutes. So, just before the lesson began yesterday, some were already moving toward the water on their own, following the instructions in a three-page handout.

"Click on the bar that says Internet," said Klots, 81, reading aloud from the handout. "Where's the bar?" she asked, scanning the keyboard.

Getting there

"Right there, where it says Internet," Slingluff prodded, pointing to a colorful bar displayed on the screen.

"Well, how do we know that's where we want to be?" Klots said.

" 'Cause it says Internet!" some guy huffed from another terminal.

"Well, how do we get there?"

It was a perfectly good question, actually, even if a whiz like Bill Gates would've stood there rolling his eyes.

"When people call about the class," instructor Sue Kreh said, "we tell them that if they expect intensive searching, then this isn't for them. This is for beginners."

Kreh can identify with this crowd because she hasn't been a user that long herself. She has no home computer, in fact, although she logs on to the Internet almost daily at the library.

Search engines

Yesterday's class seemed to make plenty of progress, if only by demystifying what might have seemed daunting and hopelessly sophisticated a mere hour earlier.

By the end of the lesson the students had tapped into a few search engines, checked out the weather in places from Florida to Alaska, looked at the schedule for a local concert arena, and clicked past a dizzying array of World Wide Web sites devoted to movies about the Titanic.

Ah, yes, Web sites.

Start searching for information by typing a nice broad term such as "Japan" or "Belfast" on the screen, and you quickly discover just how much junk is out there with the good stuff among the world's many Web sites -- 21.4 million and growing.

"The Internet is also uncensored," Kreh warned the class. "What you find on it may or may not be true. It can be anything from personal opinion to the Library of Congress database."

Love at first byte

But even a warning like that can be exciting, hinting at the almost limitless range of possibilities.

Slingluff, for one, was ready to keep going after her initiation.

"I feel like going out and buying a computer today," she said. Then she thought that over for a second.

"But I think we need a few more lessons first."

Pub Date: 1/11/98

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