Magazine article Computers in Libraries

Networked Resources

Magazine article Computers in Libraries

Networked Resources

Article excerpt

Databases are the stock in trade of librarians. We curse their deficiencies and revel in our knowledge of their obscuritis. The catalog is now "the database."

But a library's catalog may require the public to come to the library and use a terminal connected to a mainframe or minicomputer. Each database may be an island, useful only to the local population and isolated from other sytems.

The building of high-speed links across North America and the development of protocols to allow dissimilar computers to talk to each other have been the catalysts for ending this isolation. The widespread availability of the TCP/IP protocols, and the development of applications such as the Telnet virtual terminal program, mean users can access remote databases on any computer with an Internet connection. Libraries have been at the forefront of this activity.

Types of Databases

Databases on the Internet may be grouped into three main classes: those providing interactive access; those providing data files only; and those providing batch access via electronic mail. Interactive access is what you have when you use a terminal program such as Telnet to log onto a remote system and interact with the database. These systems require some kind of search software, command structure, or interface. Library OPACs fall into this category.

The simplest databases are text files users must transfer to their own machines via anonymous FTP. Many databases on the Internet, including Dr. Who, Star Trek episodes, and the lyrics server at, only have data files -- you must provide your own retrieval software.

A step up is the database that can respond to batch queries sent through electronic mail. To search these databases, the remote user sends an e-mail message containing search commands to the system.

In the days before time-sharing, all large computers operated in this batch mode. (Some readers may remember searching Medline and ERIC in this manner.) Networks that do not run the TCP/IP protocols, Bitnet for instance, have traditionally provided database services in this way. The Public Access Computer Systems (PACS-L) forum is an example of such a database. [1] There are even combination databases, searchable by e-mail for Bitnet users, and with the files available for FTP.

Covering all these databases would be a huge task, so this month's column will highlight only those databases that provide interactive access. The others will be described in a future column.

Internet Interactive Databases

The various kinds of databases available for interactive access on the Internet may be classified along the following lines:

OPACs Library online public access catalogs (may contain other databases)

CWIS Campuswide information systems (may contain library OPACs)

BBS Bulletin board systems

OTHER Miscellaneous services

WAIS Wide area information servers


The largest group is library OPACs. These number in the hundreds and range from public and special libraries to community college and large university libraries. Some of these systems contain other databases besides the library's catalog.

For example, the Colorado Alliance of Research Libraries (CARL) has UnCover (journal contents), CHOICE (current reviews for college libraries), CONSER (bibliograpic serials records), and commercial databases such as the American Academic Encyclopedia, Magazine Index, and Trade & Industry Index.

While in some cases remote users may consult these databases, others are restricted to local users. This arrangement is typical where libraries have purchased site licenses and mounted commercial databases on their systems. Information on library systems on the Internet is available from several reference tools, including Billy Barron's list. [2]

The majority of such systems are commercial products like NOTIS, GEAC, VTLS, DRA, and Dynix. …

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