InfoTrac: A Second Opinion

Article excerpt

InfoTrac: A second opinion

RECENT ARTICLES ON INfoTrac, a videodisc index system from Information Access Corporation (IAC), have been overwhelmingly positive, mentioning some areas of concern, but nothing significant enough to warrant not subscribing. The University of Wyoming Libraries, on the other hand, tried InfoTrac, saw aspects that were noteworthy, and ultimately decided not to purchase the system. The purpose of this article is to encourage careful evaluation of optical disk products, such as InfoTrac, and to promote debate in the profession about the role of such systems in libraries.

It is not our intention to attack IAC. In fact, we appreciate and applaud the firm's efforts to develop a videodisc product for libraries and the support provided by both their sales and maintenance staffs during our trial use. We are convinced, however, that Info-Trac is more than just another reference tool; it represents a wholly new concept in information storage and retrieval. The service and fiscal responsibilities of libraries require them to look beyond the glitter of such systems and carefully weigh their performance and use in libraries.

Description of InfoTrac

For those not familiar with InfoTrac, the system is a combination of readily available equipment and videodiscs serving as the storage medium for more than a million bibliographic citations. The videodisc database consists of citations and indexing for almost one thousand periodicals from the last four years drawn from IAC's Magazine Indez, Business Index, National Newspaper Index, Trade and Industry Index, and Management Contents. The system is updated monthly by a replacement disk. Up to four user stations (each consisting of a microcomputer, monitor, and printer) can simultaneously accessup to four videodisc players. The searching software, provided on a floppy diskette, allows patrons to search the database, display results on the screen, and print desired citations. For libraries starting from scratch, the cost of the InfoTrac subscription for a four-station system is $16,000 per year for the first five years and $8,500 thereafter.

Equipment

We found several mechanical aspects of InfoTrac's packaged system to be unsatisfactory, given the current state of technology. The videodisc player was noisy. Unscheduled system downtime during the trial period exceeded the recommended maximum of two percent. The initial videodisc was defective and one of the keyboards malfunctioned. With both of these problems IAC was quick to supply replacements, even to Laramie's relatively remote location. Even so, several times a day the system would crash, which was distracting for other students in the area. Reference staff had to abandon patrons at the service desk for the time it took to correct the problem.

Maintenance of the printer was also a problem; it would mysteriously break down, get jammed, or print inches of blank paperbefore the user noticed it had run out of inc. In general, system maintenance required much more staff time than we had expected.

Software and database

The searching software in combination with the custom function keys is reasonably "user friendly" and easy to learn. InfoTrac's subject access is limited by the use of pre-coordinated Library of Congress subject headings. Such headings as "Chemistry, Organic" or "U.S.--Foreign Relations--Great Britain" are not typical of search expressions used by our patrons. In an online environment, users should be allowed to use Boolean combinations of uniterms or keywords. This is not possible in InfoTrac. There is a subject heading authority list with cross-references, but finding the correct heading in any reasonably long section, sucn as Great Britain, is a time-consuming process.

Searching success, then, is directly related to the ability to understand LC subject headings--a talent not usually possessed by most of our students. …