Presenting consumers with a variety of quality resources is one of a librarian's most important responsibilities. To do this we purchase expensive books. We subscribe to as many journals as we can afford, attempting to expand our serials collections while rising serial prices threaten the retention of costly titles. We increase access for our clients by contracting with commercial database services for bibliographic, full- text, or other forms of information. But access to information, not to mention the information itself, is costly.
The Internet, once presumed the purview of researchers and educators, has become a marketplace. Some space in that marketplace serves the needs of information seekers. And while one can find many ways to spend money on the Net, searching for traditional bibliographic information doesn't have to cost a dime. Once the searcher identifies the items they want, then the purchase decision begins, but certain Web services offer attractive, moderately priced options. Although not very many of these exist, their ease of use, timeliness, and -- most important -- generosity in pricing for bibliographic citations suggest a trend that could make information acquisition less costly, particularly for libraries that have print collections to access. They also promote the use of published information in the end user's home, office, or on their laptop.
According to the Bowker Annual, libraries in the United States spend over $17 million per year on database fees. This figure combined with the $406 million spent on periodicals accounts for 53 percent of libraries' annual acquisitions expenditure.  Online vendors once priced access to their databases based on connecttime, but pricing practices have changed. Libraries have paid for documents, pieces of documents, and titles of articles through subscriptions, fixed rate contracts, and volume discounts.  Other options include user-based pricing (based on an institution's potential users) and "pay as you go" searching. 
A decade ago, the CARL Corporation introduced its UnCover service, allowing free searching in its database of citations from 17,000 journals. Information professionals and end users no longer need to limit their searches to articles indexed in their library's subscription to the Readers' Guide to Periodical Literature or some other periodical index the library made available at no charge to the patron. UnCover didn't charge for the "privilege" of searching and it could produce results comparable to those from databases issued by Information Access Company that did charge for access. Free searching for citations may have even freed the library from payments for CD-ROMs or tape licenses, e.g., to SilverPlatter Information. Although CARL'S product lacked the imprimatur of Wilson or UMI, it was still useful because it identified relevant bibliographic information. You paid CARL a fee only when you asked them for a faxed copy of an article cited in UnCover.
Librarians strive to offer comprehensive, in-depth collections and services, but journal prices, database charges, and equipment costs now force them to challenge the traditional strategy of having information handy "in case."  Most database producers (e.g., Ovid, EBSCO, Project Muse) continue charging for access to their information "just in case" their users need it, even though a few established vendors (in particular, Dow Jones Interactive) have begun allowing nearly free searching and charging only for full-text downloads or prints. (Dow Jones Interactive is not exactly free. You do pay $69.95 a year, but that also gets you Web access to The Wall Street Journal, Barron's, and other DJI data.) More and more freely accessible bibliographic databases have arisen on the World Wide Web.
Free Web Access to Traditional Information
What does free Web searching for traditionally published information mean for various users? For …