Simple Introduction to LISTSERV Conferencing


LISTSERV is a computer program that, among other things, facilitates the creation and management of electronic-mail-based conferences. The conference participants may be located anywhere in the world -- as long as they have electronic mail access to the LISTSERV server that hosts the conference of interest. This means that a LISTSERV conference is available to hundreds of thousands of people on the Internet, Bitnet, Comp- U-Serve, MCI-Mail, and any other electronic mail service with an Internet/Bitnet gateway.

The LISTSERV program was written for the Bitnet network by Eric Thomas. Another program, which functions in a way similar to LISTSERV and obeys many of the same commands, was written for Unix computers by Anastasios Kotsikonas. Both programs support electronic-mail-based conferences. There are also other list processing conference programs such as the Unix Majordomo program. These various list processor programs all work in pretty much the same way.

This simple introduction is intended to help people in the Penn State academic community get started with LISTSERV conferencing. This document will discuss the most important LISTSERV commands and will refer the reader to other available LISTSERV documentation for the complete set of commands.

How does LISTSERV work?

Basically, LISTSERV functions like a secretary in the management of conferences. When people want to join a conference they send a message to the relevant LISTSERV server to subscribe them to the intended conference. Once subscribed, they will receive conference postings via electronic mail. They respond to the conference, or initiate their own postings, also by electronic mail.

In general, two electronic mail addresses are used, that of the LISTSERV server and that of the conference. Requests to join a conference, leave a conference, obtain LISTSERV documentation, etc. are sent to the LISTSERV server. An example server address is LISTSERV@PSUVM.PSU.EDU. Conference postings are sent to the conference itself. An example conference address is AIKIDO-L@PSUVM.PSU.EDU.

LISTSERV servers also can serve as libraries of files, including conference archives and LISTSERV documentation. Many LISTSERV servers can also process simple database requests against conference archives. These topics will not be covered in this simple introduction.

What LISTSERV Conferences are available?

There are currently thousands of LISTSERV conferences on subjects ranging from Astronomy to Zoology and everything in between. Some conferences focus on academic subjects and others on hobbies or special interests. Some conferences are public and others are private. Some conferences are open and others are moderated. Some conferences generate at most a few postings per week while others generate dozens of postings each day.

There are a variety of ways to find out which LISTSERV conferences are available. Conferences for specific disciplines are often publicized through newsletters and professional conventions. There are also a number of catalogs of abstracts regarding LISTSERV conferences. One of these is the Scholarly Electronic Conferences catalog located at Another list is located at

Where do I find LISTSERV documentation?

The complete documentation for the LISTSERV server, as well as links to other documents about LISTSERV conferencing, may be found at

Sending Commands to a LISTSERV server

There are two ways to send commands to a LISTSERV server. The method you use will depend on (a) whether the server is on the Bitnet network or not, and (b) whether you will be using a PSUVM account or not.

If the LISTSERV server is on Bitnet and you are using a PSUVM account you may send commands to the LISTSERV server via the TELL command. The command is then immediately sent to the LISTSERV server as in the following:


Otherwise you are better off sending the command to the LISTSERV server in the body of an electronic mail note. Send the note to the LISTSERV server address (ie, LISTSERV@WSMR-SIMTEL20.ARMY.MIL or whatever) and place the command or commands in the body of the note. Multiple commands may be processed this way. Any response from the LISTSERV server will be in the form of electronic mail.

Important LISTSERV Commands

Following are the most important LISTSERV commands for the primary Penn State ( LISTSERV server.

This command sends you a quick LISTSERV reference card listing the more important LISTSERV commands for this server.

This command subscribes you to a conference.

This command removes you from a conference.

This command gets you a list of all available conferences.

This command sets personal distribution options.

This command requests LISTSERV to send you a file via electronic mail.

LISTSERV Conference owners

LISTSERV conferences and servers may be set up in a number of ways. For that reason you may occasionally need to communicate with the human who manages the conference. That person is typically referred to as the conference 'owner.' The conference owner should know the specifics of the conference and the LISTSERV server on which it is based. Among other things they can tell you if the conference is moderated, if archives are available, if digests are available and if database commands may be used to search the conference archives.

Typically, when you join a conference you will be mailed an introductory letter explaining the purpose of the conference, any rules for the conference and the name and electronic mail address of the conference owner.

Getting more information about LISTSERV

The Center for Academic Computing presents an intermediate seminar on LISTSERV and Usenet NEWS conferencing that is available to faculty, graduate students and staff. For more information please check the seminars web page at

This page is maintained and made available for educational use by Dr. Gerry Santoro,