Academic journal article Library Technology Reports

A Survey of Online Search Services

Academic journal article Library Technology Reports

A Survey of Online Search Services

Article excerpt

An online search service is a publicly available, fee-based information service that provides online, timeshared access to one or more computer data bases. Most online search services operate on mainframe or minicomputer-class hardware installed at the search service's headquarters. Customer locations are equipped with compatible terminals and, in some cases, software. For purposes of this discussion, online search services are divided into three broad categories, based on their data base content and intended audiences:

1. Multidisciplinary online search services offer data bases on a variety of subjects for a diverse clientele, including scientists, engineers, managers, professional practitioners, and scholars, as well as the general public.

2. News- and business-oriented online search services provide multidisciplinary subject coverage but emphasize news and business information of practical significance, as opposed to the scholarly or research-oriented data bases offered by most multidisciplinary services.

3. Specialized search services limit data base coverage to particular subject areas, such as science or engineering, or to professional disciplines or activities, such as medicine or law.

This report is limited to online search services that are suitable for library reference applications and that count libraries among their most important customers. Bibliographic utilities, which provide online access to large data bases but are intended mainly for cataloging support or resource sharing rather than reference work, fall outside the scope of this discussion. The report further excludes consumer-oriented online services--such as CompuServe, America Online, and Prodigy--that offer data bases in addition to other computer services, as well as certain business-oriented online services--such as ADP Network Services, Citicorp Database Services, Desktop Data, DRI/McGraw-Hill, IBM InfoSage and WEFA Group--that are marketed directly to financial planners, corporate strategists, investment analysts, administrative managers, and business consultants. While such consumer- and business-oriented services may be used for library reference support, that is not their principal market.

The number and variety of online search services have increased steadily and significantly since the industry's inception. In 1979, when the first in this series of reports was published, most U.S. libraries were served by three multidisciplinary services; DIALOG and Orbit were firmly established as industry leaders, while BRS, which offered a much smaller selection of data bases, competed principally on price. Specialized online services--like WESTLAW, operated by West Publishing Company, or the MEDLINE search service, operated by the National Library of Medicine--were seldom encountered outside narrowly defined market segments such as law or medical libraries, for example. During the mid-1980s, when the second report in this series appeared, specialized online services had gained greater prominence and a number of Canadian and European online services entered the U.S. market, thus broadening the choices available to U.S. libraries. By 1988, when the third report in this series was published, dozens of specialized and foreign online services were readily accessible by U.S. libraries, although none was as well known or widely utilized as the historic industry leaders: DIALOG, Orbit, or BRS. By 1992, when the fourth report in this series appeared, some U.S. services had introduced "gate-ways" to Canadian and European online services, giving their customers convenient "pass-through" access to such services without requiring separate account numbers, passwords, and telecommunication arrangements. Several foreign services implemented similar gateway arrangements for U.S. services.

While a few online search services, notably, the Canadian CAN/OLE service, have ceased operation since 1992, most existing services have expanded their offerings, and several new services have been established. …

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