Train8atWLN.COM invades Internet.
The training took place in the offices of the Westlaw Training Center, conveniently located in a tall office tower in Seattle, surrounded by attorney's offices looking out on a the beautiful vista of cars stuck in traffic on Interstate 5. At first people were saying things like,
"What's this dollar sign? Do they want money?"
But predictions of disaster at the prospect of some people never before having seen a DOS prompt caught in the middle of a Unix sub-directory were soon muted by exclamations of surprise as people yelled out,
"Oh! I just found the Supreme Court decisions!" countered with "Oh, yeah? The latest Effector newsletter is over a ftp.eff.org" followed with "Did you know you can get into Rivkah's sub-directory and list all the files she has saved there? All you do is a C-D-Dot-Dot and then a D-I-R. It lists all the directories of everyone who has a WLN account. How come you have all this Shakespeare stuff in here, Rivkah?"
"I'm ashamed of you!" she said.
"Get in line," I said.
By the end of the day most participants had at least signed up to get their own automation system conferences, were wildly e-mailing their confederates, and had managed to snarf a few Internet indexes from the middle of that "pile of books on the floor," as someone once called the Internet itself. So if you get a cryptic message from email@example.com, it's just some enthusiastic new users having a good old time.
Acid Test: Back at Home
The real test will come, however, when everyone gets back to their own libraries and wonders, once again, how to get access to the Internet. WLN access and the 800 number will remain. A library can obtain an account for $150 per year. The first account costs more, and there is a one-time set-up fee.
In addition, if you do use the 800 number, the costs for that are a little over $8 per hour. Most libraries have access to a statewide "SCAN" system which enjoys a lower per-minute charge than the 800 number.
Regardless, this will still present difficulties. Why? Because to dial into the Internet requires a modem and a phone line. If you happen to have a digital telephone system, you may also need another magic black box in addition to the modem.
If you use an AT&T Merlin system, for example, you need a "Universal Adapter" at $250 to plug in between the handset and the modem. Ironically, this allows you take digital data which has been converted to analog sounds by the modem and pass it over a digital telephone system so that it winds up in analog format just past the phone system so that it can be picked up by an analog modem to be retransmitted to digital data in the receiving computer.
Of course, you need a modem as well. You ought to be able to pick up a decent 9600 v.32 modem these days for $250 or so. I know you can get them a little cheaper, but frankly, you might want to consider paying for quality.
Many of these so-called "cheap" modems really are cheap, not inexpensive. We've had lots of trouble with the cheap ones. In my opinion, the US Robotics line of modems is very solid and worth a look. The "Courier" series is especially noteworthy.
It is true you don't need a single modem and a single adapter at every PC. If you are on a LAN it is possible to purchase modem-sharing software to allow you to use a modem attached to a server. Thus the hardware costs could be alleviated somewhat, depending on your circumstances.
Adding Up the Bill
So how many accounts do you need? In our library of 130 or so employees we estimate twenty-five could have immediate use for an account. It is true accounts could be shared. It may also be true the full breadth of the Internet would not be tapped without the freedom to explore with individual accounts.
Certainly e-mail could prove problematic with shared accounts. In any case, a further problem is the phone lines themselves. Already our seven lines are full in the afternoon when no one can get a line out. We're due for more, and intensive dial-in Internet use would raise the need even further, all at "business" rates.
When you add all this up it can get expensive right away, rivaling what it would cost for a direct connect all your own. There's the added question of how people are going to do their jobs if they are on the Internet all the time! But we'll leave that to such tools as performance evaluations to sort out.
CIL Exhibits in DC
I was able to spend a lot of time wandering around the exhibit hall at the recent Computers in Libraries exhibition in Washington, DC. The library convention competed with the VFW equivalent of Midwinter in the same hotel. Our on-line hero, Al Gore, chose to speak to them rather than us, keeping us locked in our rooms for an hour so he could have the privilege of walking down a secure hallway.
We attempted to hear our own speakers over the rousing Sousa marches as played by the Air Force band. I admit to spending some considerable time using Eric Flower's "order the prime numbers" routine at the Thai restaurants nearby.
You ought to see some of the ordering mechanisms. The waiter punches your order into a handheld pen computer and it appears on a reader board in the kitchen, reducing inventory accordingly. And we think we're automated!
The exhibits themselves were notably devoid of regional book jobbers selling local history and instead were filled with various CD-ROM vendors selling their latest contribution to online access. Ironically, as our minicomputers get smaller and smaller, the CD-ROM serving units get larger and larger.
Several major CD-ROM systems are much larger than Deep Thought, and he's over ten years old. You could quite literally have an entire wall filled with CD-ROM units run by a small RISC processor in the corner.
Because dealing with CD-ROM is becoming one of our prime tasks, I tried to stop at each vendor to view their solution. The people at H.W. Wilson told me of their new system to load Wilsontape onto a local system, then interface this with a UMI jukebox of CD-ROMs.
The idea is that a patron will call up a citation and have the opportunity of retrieving it. Once he asks for the document, the request is channeled to the UMI server, which automatically faxes the article from the CD-ROM to -- wherever!
The interesting thing about this is that there is no intermediary. Right now we have Infotrac workstations at many branches, but we can't afford yet another magazine collection duplicating the expensive one we purchased already. So we have a network of fax machines.
When a patron wants an article found on the stations, he notifies the librarian who faxes a request to Central. There it sits until our fellow who is assigned such things picks it up and travels to the Reader-Printer.
There he finds the relevant cartridge, retrieves and prints the article, then faxes it back to the requesting branch. Twenty-four-hour turn-around is not unusual. In emergencies we can do it in a few minutes.
But with the Wilson/UMI system, this manual step is eliminated. The UMI CD-ROMs carry pictures of the magazine articles in a 240-disc jukebox. These can be daisy chained so that an astounding number of articles can be online at one time. Since this can be done on automatic pilot, the library need not use people time to service the request.
So I walked over to the UMI booth. After wading through the considerable line I asked them about the new system with Wilsontape.
"We don't know anything about that," they said. "We don't have an agreement like that with them."
So I walked back over to the Wilson booth.
"They say they don't have an agreement like that with you. Did I understand all this correctly?"
Indeed, I did. "We can show you a copy of the contract," explained the rep for Wilson.
So meanwhile we'll just wait around for the two companies to acknowledge that they have an agreement. That'll give Information Access a little time to catch up here, as surely they will.
We've been going to conferences and seeing CD-ROMs for years now. It really isn't new technology. The change now is to an integration phase where we attempt to fill in manual gaps, such as Wilson/UMI have done, or find ways to place all these disparate CD-ROM units together into one seamless operation along with our tape loads and access points to other computers entirely.
CD-ROM: Too Small/Too Large
I used to think CD-ROM might be a passing fad. It's too small and too large both. I still don't understand why someone would want to put the CIA Factbook, which is only a couple of hundred pages in print form, on a CD-ROM that holds 550MB.
It's a good demo, anyway. Yet something like WLN's Lasercat is four discs and growing, requiring us to scramble for a disc tower set-up just for this one product.
At the same time hard disk prices are dropping rapidly to the point where you really can purchase a gigabyte of storage for a few thousand dollars. It needn't be a capital expense any longer.
That means lots of information that formerly was convenient on a 550MB CD-ROM can be loaded onto a local system onto a relatively fast hard disk (compared to a relatively slow CD-ROM unit) and now accessible at every terminal.
It's also true that one of the laws of disk space is that it fills up. It doesn't matter how much you have, you need twice as much. Part of this may be sloppiness and greed. The indexes to Infotrac on a typical local system increase disk space requirements dramatically.
So we begin to get cavalier about disk space. What's another gigabyte? No big deal. There is not the financial incentive to conserve as much space as there used to be.
As some of the first CD-ROM products are now expanding onto tape loads into local systems, other CD-ROM products have emerged to take their place. As a result, I suspect most local systems of the future will be a combination of approaches, each with a significant amount of tape load and also a CD-ROM rack or two accommodating the many databases now available in that format, still an ideal method of distribution, if not retrieval.
CD-ROM Problems and Solutions
Many discs are still open in public areas. We've discussed those folks who make it their life work to replace our information CD-ROMs with music CDs so they can take the purloined disc home and discover it is of no use to them. But it happens. That's one advantage of the centralized CD-ROM approach. You no longer have disc security to worry about if access is via a dumb terminal.
But we're not there yet, and the problems remain. What do you do? The following are a few tricks we've implemented over the years to attempt to thwart the happy hacker who tries to circumvent everything we do.
* Hide the CD-ROM unit inside the case of a PC. We've done this with a couple of stand-alone units for several years with no ill effects. Most full-size cases have room for one or more 5-1/4" devices inside the case. We just mount the CD-ROM drive there and close the hatch. You can't get at it without removing all the screws and taking apart the computer. This isn't ideal for all circumstances, but if you have a yearly update, for example, this could work for you. You have to find it before you can steal it.
* Hide all the files on the hard disk. Change the attributes to hidden and read only. You can't always do this with *.SYS files as some software requires CONFIG.SYS to be a normal file, but a little experimentation should tell you what those are. We also place only the minimum required DOS files onto the hard disk. We remove such files as ATTRIB, FORMAT, and nearly anything else.
* Make the entire hard disk read-only. We have a small file called "No-Write" which locks the hard disk when it boots up. This is good not only for the nefarious hacker, but also for the accidental user who doesn't quite understand what's happening and attempts to down-load onto the hard disk.
* Make the floppy disk disappear. Depending on the PC there may be several ways to accomplish this. The ideal way is a situation in which you don't need the floppy except to install new software on a 386 machine. These machines have a "CMOS," which is essentially an EEPROM that holds information about the system. It's what gets scrambled when the battery goes out.
You've never had a battery go out? What fun! You better get a new battery from Inmac or somewhere and wait around. It's great fun trying to figure out what magic number goes with your disk drive after you attempt to reinstall all the information in this CMOS.
Anyway, the trick is to get into the CMOS and mark the floppy drive as "Not Installed." That way if someone attempts to reboot the machine off a floppy, it won't work. A variation on this theme is to turn a lone floppy into drive B:, which won't boot on some machines. That way you can still have it available for downloading.
* And, of course, be sure you have a copy of McAfee's VSHIELD installed to check for viruses. It can be a little tricky getting this resident program installed amongst the device drivers required for CD-ROM access, but there are several choices available, and one should work for you.
It's true that all these tricks won't slow down a really knowledgeable person intent on giving you trouble. I would maintain they are just locks, and they will deter the casual troublemaker who may be encouraged at the first sign of weakness. If you leave enough holes lying around, perhaps he will stumble into one and give up the pursuit.
Besides, if you encounter a really good hacker, why not just hire him? If he can beat you, you obviously could use the expertise.
That Battery Thing
Maybe we'd better talk about this. It isn't really all that funny. If you have a 286 or better machine, you have a battery inside the case which holds all the information about how much memory you have, what drives are installed, and assorted information. The battery feeds the aforementioned CMOS chip when your computer is turned off.
If the battery dies, which it will after about two years, in our experience, then your computer dies along with it. You must get a new battery, install it, and place the information on your computer back into the CMOS.
Usually you can pretty much tell what your computer has. You either know or can figure out that the A: drive is a 1.2MB drive and the B: drive is a three and a half inch drive. But what you sometimes can't tell so readily is what kind of hard disk your machine has installed. The types of hard disks are held in a table which you can list once you get the machine running again. All the sizes are denoted by a number.
But the problem is that a certain size drive, say 105MB, may have several entries on the table. And unless you know precisely how many tracks and cylinders your hard disk drive has, you could conceivably put the wrong number in the CMOS, and, uh, well, you don't want to do that.
So, go boot up your computer right now and when it says, "Press the <DEL> key to change setup" or some similar statement, do so. Then page through there until you come across the number for your hard disk, and write this number down somewhere on paper, then tape that piece of paper to the computer. Then when your battery does go out, you'll be awfully glad you took the time to do this.
One of the disadvantages of articles such as this is the necessary lead time between writing the words and seeing them appear on paper. By that time some of the issues have been settled. Life moves on. So it is with this RFP we've been talking about these past few months.
We will probably have chosen a vendor by the time you read this. Yet in my time, we haven't done so yet. Therefore, one must be somewhat circumspect in dealing with these issues right now.
We have begun to get feedback from the various vendors. And some of you have written for or downloaded RFP.ZIP. Indeed, one of the vendors at the Computers in Libraries conference wanted a copy, which was by then a month into the process.
After staring at each other for awhile we both realized there was a perfectly good modem within a foot of us. Why didn't we just call up the BBS and download it for him? Done, and he had a copy inside of five minutes.
Our Director's greatest fear was that vendors would take one look at the Quest for the Son of Deep Thought and refuse to bid, leaving this somewhat off the wall proposal with nowhere to go. Happily (for me) this has not happened, and many people seem to have enjoyed it. Whether enjoyment translates to a solid proposal remains to be seen, but we have high hopes of receiving at least half a dozen solid entries.
In some sense we are playing to a narrowing field. The Geac purchase of CLSI narrowed our choices, as did DRA's purchase of Inlex. We have also had a few announce they weren't interested: Notis (which I regret), VTLS, and Sirsi being the ones we have received letters from. I suspect out of the eighteen proposals sent out, many won't bother to respond one way or another.
Vendors are in an unenviable position here. They must maximize their own resources. It does them no good to spend time and energy on a proposal they feel they have little chance of winning.
Given little time and two proposals, which one would you choose? It's like triage on the battlefield. Some of them you will just let go by.
The data communications side of the proposal has proved to be a more diverse group of folks. Library folks involved with computers are much more likely to have at least a passing familiarity with the names associated with library automation.
Geac, Dynix, and CLSI are library household names. But the modem people are largely unknown to us, and many of them are quite local. They aren't anywhere else in the country.
Data communications also is much more of a commodity market. There are lots of people out there selling boxes to hook up to phone lines. They have no particular expertise in library or any other application. Indeed, many aren't really interested. I talked a little bit about some of the characters I have met in this realm in the January column.
March 2nd was our deadline for questions. By this time, vendors had had a month to look over the proposals. We figured if we'd been vague about what we wanted (something I considered highly likely), now was the time to ask. We agreed to print out all questions, answer them, and send them back out to all Vendors of Record anonymously.
But when the questions came back, I was astounded at what they were. Nowhere were there questions about the technical aspects of what we wanted. No one asked us to clarify how important placing a foreign branch exchange extension through the data lines was to us. No one asked us whether we were dead set on digital lines no matter what.
Instead, they asked, "Will the bid go to the lowest price?" and "Do you give special credit, such as a 5 percent forgive, if the firm is registered as a minority business with the State?" All the questions were logistical in nature. It looked like they were attempting to see whether there were some strategic advantage to manipulating the bureaucracy in some way that could force us to choose a particular vendor.
Rules from Bureaucracies
I don't really blame the vendors for this. They are often used to dealing with an enigmatic structure that must seem terribly frustrating at times. They were just assuming the worst here as well, assuming we were part of the State. Not that we don't have our little rules, but we aren't tied so tightly to the state either.
But it's frustrating for both sides, really. And the worst of it is: The rules set forth by bureaucracies for procurement originally really did have the best interests of taxpayers at heart. Let's just take a couple of these rules and talk about them.
Low bidder wins seems straight-forward enough. Shouldn't low bidder win? All things being equal, sure. That begs a rather large question, though. It places the entire onus on "equal" on the writer of the proposal and creates a tremendous array of loopholes because some arcane point wasn't sufficiently specified to rule out lower quality.
It also doesn't rule out lots of other factors, particularly when it comes to commodity items, such as modems are becoming. And it certainly is the case with PCs, where anyone can put together a PC on the dining room table and have the specifications look very much like those from a major manufacturer.
Part of the problem goes back to the vendors having to allocate resources carefully. One thing the larger data communications companies have started doing is not paying attention to smaller accounts. What's a smaller account? Our $100,000 data communications proposal is small. So some of the larger vendors thought twice before even dealing with us. They would prefer to go through resellers.
Typically, a large vendor will sell large quantities of product through a few resellers in any given area. That way they need pay attention only to the reseller, not the "end user" of the product. Good examples in the micro world are AutoCad and Novell. Unlike a firm such as WordPerfect, you don't call up the factory for help. You call your "authorized reseller" for help.
The question becomes, what kind of help is that? How do you equate "Help" between one firm and another? And how important is it? Here's where we get into the "all things being equal." If vendor "A" wants to sell me a standard modem for $600, and vendor "B" wants to sell me the same modem for $550, then all things being equal, I want the cheaper price.
But someday I may want help on this modem. When it breaks, I need to be pretty well guaranteed that my "vendor" will be able to repair or replace this thing quickly and cheaply with as little hassle for me as possible.
And this leads to severe value judgments. It may be that the more expensive vendor has a much better service department, one that has proven itself helpful and fast, thus saving me a great deal of money and hassle over the long term.
But it's difficult to prove, and thereby lies the quandary of those of us who must follow proscribed bidding procedures which may not lead to the best products for our application.
In the case of PCs for our State, the certified master agreement vendor is actually much more expensive than another vendor which we have grown to like and trust, and which has a dandy service department that will work with us instead of against us to solve a problem. Rather than say, "How can you be sure the memory module is bad?" they just send a new one Federal Express, and we stick the old one in an envelope and mail it back. it is perfectly legal for me to spend much more money purchasing PCs from this vendor. But if I purchase from my own vendor, I must bid the project. So much for saving money.
What's a CPU?
The opposite side of this madness is attempting to throw something away. Eric Flower told a story at CIL on how difficult it was to throw anything away. He has several Apple II computers in a closet that he cannot throw away because they aren't old enough. He showed on the screen the elaborate paperwork he had to fill out in an attempt to do so, only to be refused. Finally he wrote back in another attempt to toss these things by saying the CPUs were totally outmoded. His reply from the office that handles such things was,
"What's a CPU?"
So the bottom line with data communications is that I expect some difficulty sorting out the "best" proposals from among what appears at first glance to be an army of pretenders all vying for the business.
Exploring the Internet
In the last few nomths we've seen an explosion of print books about the Internet. It seems every publisher is taking a stab at educating the masses about this phenomenon. One that is just a little different is Exploring the Internet: A Technical Travelogue by Carl Malamud (isbn: 0-013-296898-3).
From the title it sounds like just another of his long line: This is ftp. That is Telnet, and so on. But you should actually take the title a little more literally. Within the space of a few months, Malamud traveled around the world three times to visit Internet sites from Singapore to Helsinki.
And everywhere he stopped he found people using the Internet or about to hook up to it. And more often than not, the Internet was a part of a grander overall plan to automate not just a few industries, but entire countries. Along the way we get to meet some of the luminaries of this great enterprise as well as many of the unsung heroes who are charged with hooking the wires up and making this thing work.
We in libraries are standards freaks. Where would we be without the MARC record? And at every conference talk, it is required Z39.50 be at least mentioned. And this is one of the areas where Malamud can be quite educational.
One of the purposes behind the original world trips was to convince some of the international standards organizations to provide those standards on an Internet server. The project underwent a rather short experimental phase before it disappeared. The reasons and intrigue behind this story give you a new understanding of why "standards" is the world's greatest oxymoron. And just perhaps, after reading this, you won't ever worry about being OSI compliant again. Highly recommended.
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|Title Annotation:||librarians learn how to use Internet|
|Publication:||Computers in Libraries|
|Date:||May 1, 1993|
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