World Wide Web (frequently referred to just as “the Web”)  is similar to a library.  There are lots and lots of different kinds of documents sitting “out there” on computers around the world being maintained by different people.  All together they make up the Web.

Think about walking into your local library.  There are reference books, magazines, novels, nonfiction and more.  Some are well written, some are very good, and seem odd,and you wonder why your library bought them.  In addition, most libraries include a collection of newspapers, magazines and other periodicals, as well as videos/DVDs, music, and some government documents for citizens to browse.

All libraries have reference librarians, those magical people who expertly find just what you want, be it a particular book, references to some historical event, statistics, or your great grandfather’s birth certificate.  These people can help you find something specific, or teach you how to use the library, or provide summaries of information to help you investigate topics effectively.

Most libraries also have an announcements bulletin board and a place where local and not-for-profit organizations can place fliers so that people can learn about what is happening in their neighborhoods.  Sometimes people post “opinion statements” to share, or requests for help.

In addition, your library probably sponsors “book clubs.”  These groups select a genre of books, and select a particular book to discuss each month.  They meet at regular times, talk about the book and then decide what to discuss next time.

The library may sponsor other group discussions, such as young people’s groups, or people between jobs or whatever topic is of interest to the local community.  A quick look at my library’s offerings include sessions on Russian quilts, a career center workshop for job hunters, knitting and crocheting, introduction to genealogy, travelog Austria, tax assistance, and several needlework and crafting sessions.  All of the descriptions encourage citizens to bring a friend, or make new friends there.

The Web is all of this and more.  There are documents, periodicals, places to learn things, places to discuss things, places to voice your opinion, experts, clubs and more.  It is similar to a library – but it is very different from a library.  It is similar because there is a vast amount of information that is available to anyone – and most of it is available for free.  The Web, like a library, includes so much more than references.  It includes places for people to meet, ways of communicating, ways of sharing opinions, programs that accomplish some specific task and probably many things you may not yet have considered.

The scope of this library is enormous.  There are over 600 billion items on the Web today.  That’s over 100 items per person alive.  And, the number of web pages available is growing exponentially.  At your computer, you can access an amazing variety of music and video, an evolving encyclopedia, weather forecasts, help wanted ads, satellite images of anyplace on Earth, up-to-the-minute news from around the world, tax forms, TV guides, road maps with driving directions, real-time stock quotes, telephone numbers, real estate listings with virtual walk-throughs, pictures of just about anything, sports scores, places to buy almost anything, records of political contributions, library catalogs, appliance manuals, live traffic reports, archives to major newspapers, and more.   So, the Web is a very large library!

But, there are a few very important differences.  The first of these is that anyone can post whatever they want on the web and no one will stop them (usually).  This differs from what we see in books, newspapers and magazines, where an editor decides if the substance of the content is credible, well written and worthy of sharing.  On the Web, there generally is no editing, no overview and no one who decides that something is bad to include.  Readers need to consider things with a grain of salt, until they know of the writer’s credibility and credentials.

Second, the Web is alive.  What was available yesterday may not be available today, or if it is, it may have changed.  Documents are not like much-loved novels that read the same way today as hundreds of years ago.  People can, and do, update documents daily (or even more often), or replace them with something different.  So, it may be difficult to find items that you have seen before, even if you remember where you have seen them.

Third, in many ways, the Web is anonymous.  People need not identify themselves when posting pages (or as we shall see later, sending email or talking in a chat room).  People can, and do, disguise themselves both for reasonable purposes as well as for nefarious ones.  The user needs to have the same concerns for safety on the Web as they would in the “real world” and perhaps more.