Features - Successfully Networking CD-ROM Services at the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation

By Lillian H. Fry, Published on February 15, 1999

Lillian Fry has been the Manager, Library Services, Office of the General Counsel, Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation in Washington, D.C., since 1990.  Her library career began in 1973.


Pressure to reduce rapidly rising costs for online legal materials led us in 1995 to consider purchasing all of West's Federal Reporter System on CD-ROM. We had acquired their Bankruptcy and Federal Tax Libraries in 1991 and soon thereafter the Government Contracts Library. Initially, the CDs were available to our 80+ attorneys in the Library via an external CD-ROM drive connected to a PC that was not on our Local Area Network. There was some interest in using them, although they were not really competitive with Lexis or Westlaw, which all of our staff had at their desks.

When the Agency moved to new space in late 1993, it became feasible to network access to the three West CD sets we had, and we purchased four 7-drive CD towers to implement it. While some users were grateful to have access to electronic files without the pressure of the time clock, most continued to prefer Lexis and Westlaw for electronic research. In 1995, we switched from a DOS to a Windows operating system and could take advantage of Premise for Windows, which made CD searching much easier. We wanted to add the Federal Reporter System disks, but were nervous about investing in CD-ROM drives.

Is CD-ROM Technology Still A Viable Option?

I had done considerable research for my library committee, trying to come up with a reliable forecast about the stability and maturity of CD-ROM technology. Our existing drives were 2X and 4X drives were available. While my research showed that CD- ROM sales were rising rapidly, most forecasts covered the entertainment industry, not legal publishing, although the 1994 edition of Law-Related CD-ROMs showed an increase in law-related products of 85 % over the 1993 edition. I concluded from my research that CD technology would ultimately be a transfer medium, and I proposed the idea of copying the data to a hard drive. The library committee and I felt safer investing in a large hard drive, which could conceivably be turned to other uses should CD technology fail entirely, than we did investing in 50+ CD-ROM drives that could become obsolete in six months. I approached West about permitting us to copy the data from their CDs to a large hard drive. They consulted their attorneys and decided not to grant our request.

A combination of the Federal budget process and difficulty in converting to a new operating system slowed us down, and between West's initial denial and the time at which we were ready to purchase, I learned from a posting on the Law-Lib listserv, that West was permitting private sector customers to copy data from their CDs to a hard drive. I contacted the government contracts staff at West again, and after some consideration, they decided to let us do it.

CD-ROM to Hard Drive Transfer

Estimating the size of the hard disk we would need was our first task. At the time we initially purchased, the Federal Reporter, Federal Supplement, Supreme Court Reporter, Federal Rules Decisions, and U.S. Code Annotated plus the three libraries we already owned, resided on close to 60 CDs. West's technical staff determined how many megabytes were actually being used and we settled on a 36 gigabyte drive. We purchased an ALR server with 64 mb of RAM and a 200 MHz pentium processor for about $5,000 less than it would have cost us to purchase an adequate number of drives. We had more than enough space and as a result of vastly improved data compression techniques, the data occupies the same or less space than it did at purchase.

Our second task was setting up the server and copying the data. This took several days, but elicited no complaints from our technical staff. Once the CDs were tested by Library staff and a few others, we rolled them out to all staff along with instructions and a detailed file index that we created ourselves. We visited all staff who requested deskside tutoring, and continue this process today with all new employees.

Keeping the CDs current requires a few hours a month, depending on the number of new disks. Technical staff performs this task as it requires certain network rights that Library staff does not have. We believe that this investment in technical support time provides a more than adequate return in saved research time for professional staff.

In 1999, we are still using the original equipment, although we have added server space in preparation for expanding access to some of the CDs Agency-wide. We also got permission recently from BNA to copy the data from their Employee Benefits Library on CD to our hard drive and eliminated some of the problems we had with it running in an old 2X drive. We have not been entirely trouble-free. Some users experience screen freezing and we did have one equipment failure that resulted in the CDs being offline for nearly two weeks. We have not had some of the serious networking difficulties cited by some Law-Lib participants, although many of those seem attributable to using CD towers or jukeboxes.

In addition to speed of access (including that the vast majority of information is on site, eliminating the need to dial out) a significant advantage of the Federal Reporter system on CD is hypertext linking among documents. One of my favorite comments on the CDs was this early one from one of our attorneys: I went back to the future, so to speak, by using a research method I had dropped in favor of a words and phrases search using Boolean logic. Now, as in my pre-automated database days, I start with a USCA cite and follow it down to decisions reported under that cite. Each cited decision is instantly visible with a click of the mouse, and each case-within-a-case is similarly available. It is also easy to locate a useful key number and use hypertext links to find other relevant cases assigned the same key number. This assumes that all reporters are included in your set of CDs.

This fiscal year we reviewed our decision to purchase the CDs in light of better pricing from Westlaw and Lexis. I surveyed OGC attorneys and a healthy percentage preferred using the CDs. Their reasons were all over the map, but included speed of access, organization of the books, faster printing and downloading, faster scrolling through documents, and unlimited access. For the near future, we plan to keep a mix of resources, including books, CDs, commercial online, and Internet. Like many other libraries, however, we are looking at the cost of space and carefully watching the habits of our users. The day is surely coming when we will eliminate the print version of at least some of our case law.