How to Use the Internet to do Research

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Homeschooling families use the library often. We go to the library whenever we want to look something up or we want to find a book to read. But did you know that the Internet can be just as useful (or even more useful) in doing research? We will discuss two parts of the Internet that are valuable research tools: newsgroups and mailing lists.


To understand what newsgroups are, imagine a huge building with thousands of rooms. Each room is labeled with a different subject heading and has messages posted on its walls. You are free to go into any of the rooms, read any of the messages and either respond to any of these messages or post new messages of your own.

Newsgroups are divided into several categories which are called hierarchies. Here are some of the hierarchies that homeschooling families will be interested in:

  • rec (recreational, art, music, audio, aviation, food, gardens, hunting, pets, scouting, games, sports, travel, crafts, or hobby related newsgroups)
  • sci (science oriented newsgroups such as medicine, agriculture, math, chemistry, aeronautics, anthropology, and space—research and application)
  • soc (newsgroups on social issues such as religion, history, culture and politics)
  • humanities (literature, classics, music, and fine arts)
  • alt (a huge bunch of newsgroups on all kinds of subjects, many bizarre and weird, but a few very useful ones—these newsgroups have less restrictive rules governing how they are created).
  • k12 (k-12 education)
  • misc (everything that doesn’t fit into any of the other categories, including education)

Each of these broad hierarchies is divided into smaller categories which may, in turn, be divided into yet smaller categories. To avoid any confusion as to the topic under discussion and to make it easy to locate, each newsgroup is assigned a unique name. For example, “misc.dogs” would be a newsgroup in the misc hierarchy but specifically about dogs. Here you would find discussion concerning anything about dogs in general. You could post questions to this newsgroup such as, “What is the best kind of dog food for a puppy?” “What do you do with a dog that barks too much?” “Should I buy a dog from a pet store?” The newsgroup entitled “misc.dogs.goldenretrievers” would be a newsgroup specifically about the golden retriever breed. You would post questions concerning only that breed. The newsgroup “misc.dogs.goldenretriever.christian” would be a newsgroup of Christians discussing golden retrievers. The newsgroup “misc.dogs.goldenretriever.christian.fleas” would be Christians discussing the flea problems of their golden retrievers. You’ve got the idea.

There are thousands and thousands of newsgroups covering almost every topic you can imagine. The vast majority of these newsgroups are profane and worthless, but there are a few that are valuable to the homeschooling family for doing research. Because many newsgroup participants possess a very high level of expertise in their respective fields, newsgroups can serve as a useful reference tool in answering specific questions. Newsgroups bring together specialists in a particular field, and when you post a question to a newsgroup you have the undivided attention of these specialists.

Here are some specific questions we had answered by newsgroups:

  1. Helena couldn’t figure out one of her Saxon Math Algebra II problems. We posted the problem on the newsgroup On the subject line we wrote “question about Saxon Algebra II from homeschooled student.” You want to be very specific about what you put on the subject line (just like when you send someone an Email) in order to attract just the right person. Some newsgroups have hundreds of messages posted on them every day, and you want your message to get noticed and answered as soon as possible. We received our first answer to this question in half an hour! You may be wondering who in the world would want to spend his time answering math questions from students. Your answers will come from people all over the globe—people who just love, in this case, algebra.
  2. Last summer we bought a microscope. We wanted to observe blood cells but didn’t know how to make up a slide, so we posted a question on There are several other newsgroups to which we could have posted microscope questions, but this newsgroup seemed to have a lot of traffic (lots of recent questions, answers, and discussion). Some newsgroups are almost dead. They have very few postings. Our microscope question generated responses from: a lab technician working in a gene-therapy group in Germany; the director of the Center of Ultrastructural Research at the University of Georgia; a science teacher home with the flu; a Ph.D. at the University of New England; a lab assistant at the University of Illinois (he sent us a big packet of educational materials); the Professor of Biology at Quinnipiac College; a writer with scientific training; and the Director of Microbiology and Pathology at Royal Darwin Hospital. The answers came quickly, and it was just what we needed. If we had used the library to find these answers, we would have first had to find the books and then find the information in the books. It would have taken much longer. Using the Internet we was able to find the answers to our questions quickly without leaving home.
  3. Hans wanted to learn to play the banjo. We posted on the newsgroup alt.banjo the question “Am interested in learning to play the banjo—what would be the best book to start with?” On the subject line we wrote “beginner’s banjo question.” We received answers from banjo players all over the country.
  4. The alt.speech.debate and alt.speech.misc. newsgroups were very useful to us this past year as we were starting out in debate. We posted numerous questions and received scores of answers from debate coaches, high school and college debate students, and professors of debate.
  5. Questions to the newsgroup sci.logic always generate lots of answers. Your question will be answered, and then the participants will proceed to logically analyze all the answers. We have posted questions on what would be a good logic textbook, and we received answers from a professor in Copenhagen, a professor of philosophy at Bucknell University, and a professor of philosophy and religion at NCSU.
  6. We have posted messages asking for information on particular physics, biology, and chemistry textbooks. We received a wide range of opinions on the value of different texts. An advanced placement physics instructor led us to an excellent physics text and video course.
  7. One of our favorite responses was an answer to a question posted to alt.animals.pandas. We asked how many pandas are in the U.S. The superintendent of the Sequoia Park Zoo replied that there are three.

Most people don’t realize the wealth of information available through newsgroups. You can tap into the brains of thousands of experts on any number of subjects. Because newsgroup participants come from all over the world, you can obtain opinions on all sides of a controversial issue.

Here are some other newsgroups you might find helpful:

  • rec.birds
  • rec.crafts.textiles.yarn
  • alt.war.civil.usa
  • misc.survivalism
  • sci.chem
  • alt.collecting.stamps
  • alt.ham-radio
  • geometry
  • humanities.classics
  • alt.history
  • soc.history
  • alt.sci.physics
  • alt.geneology
  • alt.usage.english
  • alt.books.cs-lewis
  • alt.usage.german
  • humanities.lit.authors.shakespeare

Since there are so many newsgroups — often several on any one subject — it is sometimes difficult to find the right newsgroup to ask your question. On the newsgroup there is posted a document that will give you some general methods of finding the right newsgroup for a topic.

You can do a search of newsgroups to find all the newsgroups on any particular topic. We searched the newsgroups for the word “spanish” and found 8 newsgroups, only one of which appeared useful (alt.usage.spanish). The others were either dead or filled with ads and junk. We posted a question asking how to find a good Spanish curriculum. Within hours we received an answer from a Senor Refugio S. Lozano which detailed what to look for in a good Spanish textbook.

Newsgroups are easy and convenient to use (right in your own home). You can get into a newsgroup quickly, post your question or print out a response, then leave immediately.


Mailing lists are groups of people with common interests who send speedy little Email messages to one another concerning these common interests. When you subscribe to a mailing list, your name and Email address is automatically added to the mailing list. You will receive a letter of welcome telling you about the list. From that time on, you will receive all mail (postings) sent to the mailing list by its members. You may follow the discussions and join in on them. You will send your messages to only one address, but it will go out to all the people on the list, which may be only a few, or thousands. You can unsubscribe from the list at any time.

Like newsgroups, there are thousands of mailing lists covering every topic imaginable. Most lists will be of no interest to homeschooling families, but there are a few that are useful to us. The main difficulty with mailing lists is finding the one that meets your needs. Fortunately, there are web pages which list lists of mailing lists. Our favorite is, which is a mailing list spider. You can search their directory of 85,000 mailing lists or click on any topic to browse.

Here are a few other lists of lists (these are not specific mailing lists, but lists of lists):

  • Internet Mailing Lists in History
  • Oncology Mailing Lists
  • Lists on Geneology
  • Summary of mailing lists created for families of children with special needs
  • List of Music Mailing Lists
  • The Gardener’s Guide to Mailing Lists
  • K-12 Email Discussion Lists
  • Tile.Net—browse for newsgroup descriptions by name, subject, country of origin, or sponsoring organization
  • The List of Statistics Lists
  • The Directory of Scholarly and Professional E-Conferences
  • Greek Mailing Lists

We used mailing lists extensively this past year while studying debate. The debate mailing list (for government school students) gave us a good start in understanding the terminology and procedures of debate. Unfortunately, we had to screen these messages because of the profanity. The Homeschool debate topic last year was on economics, so we subscribed to a political economics mailing list. We found this list by using one of the mailing list spiders. We posted our question and immediately started receiving responses. These responses came from Ph.D. political economists from Havana, Argentina, Netherlands, Taiwan, the United States, Germany, Denmark, Malaysia, Canada, and England. And, because these economists were from different political persuasions, we received a wide range of opinions. They answered our questions, and then the socialists proceeded to debate the capitalists as to the correct answer.

Many states now have their own homeschool mailing lists. If you subscribe to one of these lists you can receive current homeschool legal information concerning your state, support group locations, and other up-to-date local homeschool information. To find how to subscribe to these lists you might contact your state homeschool organization.

Here are a couple of mailing lists/internet newsletters for homeschooling families interested in Classical Education:

  • Homeschooling with the Trivium
    (visit this page to subscribe)
  • Classical Christian Schooling Digest (send a subscribe message to this address)

It is our opinion that you get more responses and more varied responses from mailing lists as opposed to newsgroups. But the disadvantage of mailing lists is that you have to suffer through dozens of emails coming to your mailbox everyday. Most of the messages you won’t be interested in. Sorting through them can be tedious. We suggest subscribing to the list you want, ask your question right away, get your answer, and then unsubscribe.

Newsgroups, mailing lists, and the web itself might just eliminate most of our running to the library in order to look something up quickly or to do extensive research. The Internet will never replace the library, but in our house, we first go to the Internet, and if that fails to provide the information we want, then we try the library.

Some will say that the Internet is a dangerous place for kids. Unfortunately, in these days the library can be just as dangerous. In the 70’s and 80’s when we first started going to libraries we had no fear of letting our little ones roam the rows of books. Today, you need to be right with your children as they examine books. There are wicked pictures in public library books and on their covers in open display. It is the same with the Internet. You should never let a young child on the Internet alone. You train the child where he can go and to stay away from anything unknown. By the time the child is 15 or so he could be doing some Internet research on his own. Always position the computer in or near the main room of your home, never in a bedroom or basement.

Why did God create the Internet? Yes, there can be harms just as there are with books. Evil men can use the Internet to work evil and to harm God’s people. But the Internet opens up a wonderful opportunity. Just as Gutenberg’s invention of moveable type made books available to every man, so with the Internet, one man can publish information and the whole world can read it instantly. Just the thing for us practical homeschoolers.


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