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Kinds of Documentation

On Debian systems, you can find documentation in at least the following places:

  • man pages, read with the man command.
  • info pages, read with the info command.
  • The /usr/doc/package directories, where package is the name of the Debian package.


    zless is useful for reading the files in /usr/doc; see section 8.1 on page [*] for details.

  • /usr/doc/HOWTO/contains the Linux Documentation Project's
    HOWTO documents, if you've installed the Debian packages containing them.

  • Many commands have an -h or -help option. Type the command name followed by one of these options to try it.
  • The Debian Documentation Project has written some manuals.
  • The Debian support page has a FAQ and other resources. You can also try the Linux web site.
The confusing variety of documentation sources exists for many reasons. For example, info is supposed to replace man, but man hasn't disappeared yet. However, it's nice to know that so much documentation exists!

So where to look for help? Here are some suggestions:

  • Use the man pages and the -help or -h option to get a quick summary of a command's syntax and options. Also use man if a program doesn't yet have an info page.
  • Use info if a program has info documentation.
  • If neither of those works, look in /usr/doc/packagename.
  • /usr/doc/packagename often has Debian-specific information, even if there's a man page or info page.
  • Use the HOWTOs for instructions on how to set up a particular thing or for information on your particular hardware. For example, the Ethernet HOWTO has a wealth of information on Ethernet cards, and the PPP HOWTO explains in detail how to set up PPP.
  • Use the Debian Documentation Project manuals for conceptual explanations and Debian-specific information.
  • If all else fails, ask someone. See section A.1.3 on page [*].
Using man pages is discussed above in section 5.1 on page [*]. It's very simple: press the space bar to go to the next page, and press q to quit reading. Using info, viewing files in /usr/doc, and asking for help from a person are all discussed in the remainder of this chapter.

Using info

info is the GNU documentation viewer. Some programs provide documentationin info format, and you can use info to view that documentation. You can start up the viewer by simply typing info, or by supplying a topic as well:

info emacs
You can also bring up the information on info itself, which includes a tutorial, like so:

info info
Now, you may navigate with these keys:

Move the cursor around the document
Select the menu item that's at the cursor
Move ``up'' in the document
Move to the next page
Move to the previous page
Search for something
Go to a specific page
Quit info
You might notice that the top line of the screen indicates the next, previous, and ``up'' pages, corresponding nicely to the actions for the n, p, and u keys.


In addition to their books, the Linux Documentation Project has made a series of short documents describing how to set up particular aspects of GNU/Linux. For instance, the SCSI-HOWTO describes some of the complications of using SCSI - a standard way of talking to devices - with GNU/Linux. In general, the HOWTOs have more specific information about particular hardware configurations and will be more up to date than this manual.

There are Debian packages for the HOWTOs. doc-linux-text contains the various HOWTOs in text form; the doc-linux-html package contains the HOWTOs in (surprise!) browsable HTML format. Note also that Debian has packaged translations of the HOWTOs in various languages that you may prefer if English is not your native language. Debian has packages for the German, French, Spanish, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Polish, Swedish and Chinese versions of the HOWTOs. These are usually available in the package doc-linux-languagecode, where languagecode is fr for French, es for Spanish, etc. If you've installed one of these, you should have them in /usr/doc/HOWTO. However, you may be able to find more recent versions on the Net at the LDP homepage.

Personal Help

The correct place to ask for help with Debian is the debian-user mailing list at [email protected]. If you know how to use IRC (Internet Relay Chat), you can use the #debian channel on You can find general GNU/Linux help on the comp.os.linux.* USENET hierarchy. It is also possible to hire paid consultants to provide guaranteed support services. The Debian website has more information on many of these resources.

Again, please do not ask the authors of this book for help. We probably don't know the answer to your specific problem anyway; if you mail debian-user, you will get higher-quality responses, and more quickly.

Always be polite and make an effort to help yourself by reading the documentation. Remember, Debian is a volunteer effort and people are doing you a favor by giving their time to help you. Many of them charge hundreds of dollars for the same services during the day.

Tips for asking questions

  • Read the obvious documentation first. Things like command options and what a command does will be covered there. This includes manpages and info documentation.
  • Check the HOWTO documents if your question is about setting up something such as PPP or Ethernet.
  • Try to be sure the answer isn't in this book.
  • Don't be afraid to ask, after you've made a basic effort to look it up.
  • Don't be afraid to ask for conceptual explanations, advice, and other things not often found in the documentation.
  • Include any information that seems relevant. You'll almost always want to mention the version of Debian you're using. You may also want to mention the version of any pertinent packages: The command dpkg -l packagename will tell you this. It's also useful to say what you've tried so far and what happened. Please include the exact error messages, if any.
  • Don't apologize for being new to Linux. There's no reason everyone should be a GNU/Linux expert to use it, any more than everyone should be a mechanic to use a car.
  • Don't post or mail in HTML. Some versions of Netscape and Internet Explorer will post in HTML rather than plain text. Most people will not even read these posts because the posts are difficult to read in most mail programs. There should be a setting somewhere in the preferences to disable HTML.
  • Be polite. Remember that Debian is an all-volunteer effort, and anyone who helps you is doing so on his or her time out of kindness.
  • Re-mail your question to the list if you've gotten no responses after several days. Perhaps there were lots of messages and it was overlooked. Or perhaps no one knows the answer - if no one answers the second time, this is a good bet. You might want to try including more information the second time.
  • Answer questions yourself when you know the answer. Debian depends on everyone doing his or her part. If you ask a question, and later on someone else asks the same question, you'll know how to answer it. Do so!

Getting Information from the System

When diagnosing problems or asking for help, you'll need to get information about your system. Here are some ways to do so:

  • Examine the files in /var/log/.
  • Examine the output of the dmesg command.
  • Run uname -a.

John Goerzen / Ossama Othman

  Published under the terms of the GNU General Public License Design by Interspire