Making the Most of Your Library

Part 9 -- Computer Information Sources

Copyright 1990, 1998 by Leigh Kimmel

Originally appeared in SF&FW Newsletter #132, September 1992

For permission to quote or reprint, contact Leigh Kimmel

This article originally appeared in Science Fiction & Fantasy Workshop Newsletter

As most of us know, we are living in the computer age. And although libraries have a nasty reputation as being stodgy and behind the times, computer services are rapidly taking their places in the library. One of the earliest and most familiar uses to which computers have been put to is the online public access catalog that replaced the mouldering old card catalogs that were for so many years a standard fixture in libraries. But this has not been the only use for computers in libraries.

Many of our familiar reference sources such as indexes and abstracting services have been computerized. This increases our searching power many times, putting the entire run of an index or abstracting service at our fingertips rather than forcing us to paw through dozens upon dozens of dusty paper copies. And that is particularly nice when dealing with such sources as Library and Information Science Abstracts, which is published monthly and not annually compiled into a single volume. Furthermore computerization enables us to combine search terms for one-step complex searches, and to search types of information that were present but not searchable in the paper index, such as searching for terms that appear in an abstract but are not in the title and are not used as subject headings.

Computerized information sources come in two basic types -- online and CD-ROM. Online sources such as Dialog and BRS are centrally located databases to which the user dials in via a modem. These systems often allow a searcher to access a large number of databases on many different subjects in one quick call. However the database vendors charge for their use by minutes of connect time, meaning that the cost increases the more one uses them. If the library passes these charges to the user, a search can quickly become quite expensive.

CD-ROM systems, by contrast, are locally contained. The library buys the computer, CD-reader and data discs. As with traditional paper sources, the library pays a fixed price for them, and the cost-per-use becomes less the more they are used. However they often are limited in availability because libraries will likely not buy products that will not receive a large amount of use. Also since CD-ROM products can only be accessed at the individual computers where they are running, patrons may be forced to wait for access.

A third option midway between the two extremes which is being investigated by a number of large academic libraries is the locally-mounted online system. In this system the library purchases the rights to one or more databases, which it then mounts onto a local computer network, often the existing network of terminals serving the library’s online public access catalog. In this system patrons are able to search information databases to find citations for subjects and then enter the titles of the citations into the library’s catalog to find if the library has the item, all without laborious recopying of citations which may introduce untracable errors.

Computer information sources are a tool that should not be overlooked in researching any subject. Often they can save long hours searching through paper indexes for elusive material.

Copyright 1990, 1998 by Leigh Kimmel

For permission to quote or reprint, contact Leigh Kimmel