Writing for the Web: A Primer for Librarians

by Eric H. Schnell


HTML is based on the Standard Generalized Markup Language (SGML) and is currently the most popular the language of the Web.  HTML documents consist of two main components referred to as the head and body. Each of these components in turn consist of many different tags which tell the Web browser how the document should be displayed. HTML tags encoded into a Web document provide the Web browser with general formatting information including font size and emphasis, paragraphs, horizontal lines, and tables.

HTML tags consist of a left angle bracket (<), a "less than" symbol, followed by name of the tag. It is then closed by a right angle bracket (>), or a "greater than" symbol. Tags are paired with the end tag looking like the beginning tag except a slash (/) precedes the text within the two brackets ( e.g. <H1> and </H1>). Here is a minimal HTML document using a few basic tags. 

See Example

Here's how it appears when viewed by your browser. The manner in which your a interprets the tags may affect the way it appears on screen.

[ NOTE:This Primer is not intended to discuss all the current HTML tags. Other Web documents which discuss HTML tags are the World Wide Web Organization's HyperText Markup Language and NCSA's A Beginners Guide to HTML. HTML guides are also available at the Yahoo! Guides and Tutorials list.]

HTML Structure

It is important to understand that HTML is oriented towards the structure and content of a document rather than appearance. This is so each Web browser, either text-based or graphical, can translate the document appropriately for local display. This way, if a font is not supported by the user's computer it can be changed locally to one which is.

There are several advantages to this structure. It allows the author to focus on content which is well written and easy to understand. Since HTML is less dependent on layout and formatting codes, an author can make content changes with fewer edits. Simple edits can be done using simple text editors rather than loaded into a desktop publishing software and reformatted. Finally, since HTML documents lack font style and formatting codes they are generally small in size and can be transferred more quickly across the Internet.


The development of stylesheets may change how Web pages are created. With a stylesheet, a standard HTML document is written and marked up with body, headers, paragraphs, etc. A separate stylesheet is then created which tells the browser how to render the document. Paragraphs in 12-point Helvetica with 1-inch margins while headline should be blue, 36-point Times Roman. The stylesheet is then pointed to in the head of the HTML document.

There are several benefits of separating the structure and style in this manner. Multiple HTML documents can point to one stylesheet, so by changing that sheet, you can change the look of an entire Web site. Since these stylesheets cascade hierarchically, different stylesheets could be developed for different sections of a Web site. A sheet can set the header of every document on a site while other sheets can describe the typography and even override the settings of the sheets before them. 
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Page Updated: Tuesday, 24-Nov-98