Magazine article Computers in Libraries

Providing Wide-Area Database Access to a College Campus Using the Internet

Magazine article Computers in Libraries

Providing Wide-Area Database Access to a College Campus Using the Internet

Article excerpt

The entire landscape of traditional reference services at Wheaton College in Norton, Massachusetts, has been revolutionized by information technology. Within only a few years, the reference services and indexes have evolved from print to mediated online database searching to single-user CD-ROM workstations. In 1994, our library struggled with the decision of how to network the single-user, DOS-based (at that time) CD-ROM workstations in the most cost-effective way. The decision became necessary because the number of databases and CD-ROMs had expanded far beyond the available disc drive capacity and reliability.

Creating a local area network was deemed inefficient and costly. Instead, we wanted to create a wide area network for our database subscriptions but didn't know how we could take advantage of our existing MacTCP/IP campus network to solve our database access problems. We also wanted to avoid a costly investment in additional expensive equipment and technical support.

Seeking a solution, we agreed to become a beta-test site for a new product from SilverPlatter, the Electronic Reference Library (ERL) database service over the Internet. The Macintosh client was untested at that point and SilverPlatter wanted a small institution willing to test the software.

At the start of the fall semester, the library began to test MacSPIRS client/server software on all of the public workstations in the reference department. Users accessed databases from a remote server located at the SilverPlatter, Inc. headquarters in Norwood, Massachusetts. ERL offered the Wheaton College faculty and students the opportunity to access a broad range of multidisciplinary databases simultaneously from any computer in the library connected to the campus network. Patrons accessed this information using the same retrieval software they were accustomed to using for the CD-ROM subscriptions. To users, the transition from CD-ROM access to Internet access was seamless. Almost overnight the reference workstations were transformed to multimedia computers accessing information from not only SilverPlatter but from all over the world.

The Beta-test Experience

The computer environment at Wheaton College consisted largely of Macintosh computers connected by Ethernet and using Appletalk and MacTCP/IP network protocols. Most of the campus buildings were already connected by this network, and all of the dormitories, which house over 1,300 students, are scheduled to be networked by the fall of 1996.

The college considered the options of buying an expensive server and accessing the ERL databases locally or of installing client/server software on four new Macintosh Performas in the reference room from which to access subscriptions over the Internet. It was clear that the most cost-effective way to proceed was to choose Internet access instead of purchasing a local server and hiring additional staff to maintain it.

Once the decision was made, we began to dismantle our CD-ROM-based service and to install the ERL software on each of the public Macintosh workstations. Instead of having invested many thousands of dollars on a server to accommodate our subscriptions, we spent just a few thousand on our first Macintosh computers in the library. By simply installing the necessary software and connecting to the network, we became a state-of-the art facility using the most sophisticated methods available to retrieve and distribute information over the Internet.

Remote Access Versus

Local Control

It was not an easy decision at first to abandon all local control of our indexes in favor of remote access via the Internet. However, what is lost in local control is gained in cost control. For a small liberal arts college like Wheaton that is an important consideration. The resources saved by choosing remote access and support were utilized instead to fund increased access to the resources needed by the faculty and students of our community. …

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