Guest Editorial: Talking about Public Access-PACS-L's First Decade
Crawford, Walt, Information Technology and Libraries
Sharing ideas, information, perspectives, and views: a human need and one core aspect of librarianship. Computers have helped people to share perspectives for years, going back long before the World Wide Web. One key tool has been e-mail list processing software, usually called "list servers." Perhaps the largest e-mail list in the library field, and one of the oldest and most significant, is the Public-Access Computer Systems Forum, usually called PACS-L. PACS-L began more than a decade ago. While it disappeared ten years after it began, it came back to life in March 2000 with a new team of moderators and a refreshed spirit.
Thursday, June 29, 1989, 2:21 p.m. Central Daylight Time: "Welcome to the Public-Access Computer Systems Forum, a computer conference dedicated to discussions of all systems that libraries make available to patrons." That's how Charles Bailey, Jr. of the University of Houston kicked off the PACS-L e-mail list. During the next ten years, more than eighteen thousand messages reached an audience that grew to more than ten thousand people.
The message continued: "What can this conference be used for? You can share information about services you offer, products you use, projects you are engaged in, and things that you have read. You can survey conference participants about things that interest you. You can float ideas and see what people think. And, of course, you can stand on a soapbox and tell us your point of view."
There was no Web in 1989, and even the Internet was unknown to most of us. PACS-L used Listserv mail processing software and nearly all that mail went out over BITNET, the Because It's Time Network that linked academic institutions through e-mail. When most of us thought about public-access computer systems in libraries, we meant online catalogs and circulation systems, CD-ROM databases, and maybe a few online services such as Dialog and BRS/Search.
"In 1989," according to Bailey, "the few library automation lists that existed were narrowly focused on specific vendor systems (e.g., NOTIS-L). My primary job responsibilities were in the emerging area of public services automation. Mailing lists seemed to me to be a very powerful tool; however, there wasn't a list for public services automation. I felt that there was the need for a list that would encourage discussions on a broad range of topics in this increasingly important area. With the support of Robin Downes [then director of the University of Houston Libraries], I established PACS-L."
Bailey went on to found PACS Review and served as its editor through 1996. Beginning in September 1990, he prepared and maintained Library-Oriented Computer Conferences, later Library-Oriented Lists and Electronic Serials. In October 1996 he began publishing the Scholarly Electronic Publishing Bibliography, a regularly updated electronic publication.
PACS-L's Early Months
Word of PACS-L spread through various library channels; people began to subscribe and post immediately. The first message from outside the United States arrived July 3, when Richard Gartner (Oxford Polytechnic) noted, "We at Oxford Polytechnic, UK, are only just starting our CD-ROM service.... Has anyone already set up a working networked CD-ROM service? If so I would be very grateful for anything you could tell me about it." People discussed CD-ROM databases for years, sharing their experiences and pondering the vagaries of CD-ROM performance and search interfaces. Later that month, Tom Wilson (University of Houston) noted the hunger of H. W. Wilson CD-ROM databases for RAM and offered ways to satisfy them. People solved problems by relying on the experiences of others: that's been a major benefit of PACS-L and other such lists throughout their history. Other topics begun in late 1989 included online catalog design (an "evergreen" topic for PACS-L), the virtues of abandoning printed indexes when CD-ROM versions were available, which record elements should be displayed in an online catalog, and the academic library of the future. …