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Features - A Bridge Too Long? A New Appraisal of the View of CD-ROM as a Bridge Technology

By Stephen P. Weiter, Published on September 1, 1997
(Archived October 1, 1997)




Stephen P. Weiter earned his MLS from the School of Information Studies at Syracuse University in 1995. He is currently the Senior Law Librarian for Automation at the New York State Appellate Division Law Library, Fourth Department, in Rochester, NY. He has experience working in public, academic, and library automation vendors. Stephen has written for Computers in Libraries, and teaches a graduate level course in government documents at Syracuse University.

A recently posted question to the lawlib-l listserv <lawlib-l@ucdavis.edu> has provoked a re-examination of the "CD-ROM as bridge technology" issue. Is CD-ROM technology an interim step towards better, faster, information technologies? Will CD-ROM be replaced by online subscription services and/or the Internet, or by some new as-yet-to-be-developed information medium? The issue is of some importance, especially for law firms, libraries, and other organizations that are attempting to construct long range plans for the development of their in-house networks. Given the choices between print, CD-ROM, and online resources, which resources should we invest our money in? Networking CD-ROM towers is expensive and requires local expertise to support. If CD-ROM is a passing technology which is near the end of its usefulness, does it make sense to pour a lot of money into drives, software and subscriptions?
Once upon a time I believed that CD-ROM technology would indeed fade rapidly into the shadows of information history. It was, and still is, expensive. Maintaining network access for multiple users presented all sorts of administrative and technical problems. Access to the databases was very slow, even with quad speed drives. Access to remote locations on a wide-area network or through dial-in access lines was next to impossible. Online databases were providing rapid access to information for the price of a subscription, a modem, and a phone line. Having someone else store the database eliminated many support headaches and the cost of maintaining all that CD-ROM hardware. The Internet was a vast unexplored land of all sorts of information possibilities. CD-ROM is fine for now, I would say, but just wait until the Internet and other databases have time to grow and reach their full potentials! Surely this combination of factors would drive people into the online marketplace for information and doom the little silver discs into retirement, to be taken out of their caddies only on the rare occasions when we needed a good mirror to safely view a solar eclipse. It hasn’t happened. The "bridge technology" now has a span of over ten years. And while some keep looking for the elusive information treasure at the end of the bridge, I now believe that CD-ROM is a stable, reliable and very useful tool for gaining networked access to legal information that will not soon fade away. In this article I will explain why I believe this has occurred, and why you should not throw your CD-ROM towers out on the scrap heap just yet. The "bridge technology" now has a span of over ten years. ... I now believe that CD-ROM is a stable, reliable and very useful tool for gaining networked access to legal information that will not soon fade away.
Overall, CD-ROMs in the legal publishing field have better and more consistent search interfaces than external databases. The Internet holds great promise as a source of legal information, but high speed access is not cheap. The costs of maintaining a digital connection can far exceed the costs of a modest CD-ROM network. Subscription services such as Westlaw, Lexis/Nexis, Dialog, OCLC’s FirstSearch, etc., all provide very timely, reviewed, high quality legal information as well. However, the associated fees can be mind-boggling budget busters, especially in a large court library or in a very active law firm.

These costs are among the major reasons why CD-ROM and other forms of locally mounted databases (magnetic tape, optical discs, etc.) will continue to supplement and compliment printed, microform, Internet, and online databases for some time to come. Librarians will continue to rely on all of these information formats to provide answers to patrons’ legal information needs. Statistics from the publishing industry tend to support this claim. Instead of moving away from CD-ROM databases, information providers are producing more of them. This includes the federal government which - through the Government Printing Office - is publishing more information on CD-ROM as well as online. CD-ROMS in Print, published by Mecklermedia listed 2,900 CD titles in 1992 and 6,000 in 1994. The 1995 edition lists over 8,000 titles, 449 of them under the "legal" subject heading. CD-ROMs are getting faster, are now read-writeable and, especially with DVD technology, can contain a great deal more data than in the past. Overall, CD-ROMs in the legal publishing field have better and more consistent search interfaces than external databases.

Online and Internet-based information is growing too, but not at the expense of CD-ROM. The Gale Directory of Databases lists a total of 5,900 online databases. A recent estimate of the total number of world Wide Web sites placed the number between 100 - 150 million pages at 650,000 sites. (Brake, 1997. p2.) Online (subscription and Internet-based) databases of legal information are very valuable tools. Online/Internet databases do have certain advantages. First, they can be updated constantly, which allows for the provision of very timely data. Second, since they are remotely stored and managed, the library does not incur the expense of managing those databases. Libraries do have to manage the subscription costs, transaction fees, connectivity charges, and monthly phone charges where they exist in order to access online or Internet-based information.

I would hesitate to rely on online or Internet databases as my sole source of legal information. The trade-off between reliability and costs has not, in my opinion, been resolved in favor of online resources, especially the Internet. The Internet is not entirely stable or predictable. At best, speed of access varies from hour-to-hour, servers crash or are taken off line for maintenance. (Try to connect to the Library of Congress’ Locis server on any given weekend and you may or may not find it.) Information moves from place to place, Internet service providers go bankrupt, domain names change. Sometimes the whole network collapses as happened on July 17th of this year, when as reported in the New York Times operators at Network Solutions Inc. ignored automated alarms and all Internet address information was temporarily lost (Markoff, New York Times, 7/18/97).

Online/Internet databases ... can be updated constantly, which allows for the provision of very timely data. ... since they are remotely stored and managed, the library does not incur the expense of managing those databases.
CD-ROM-based data has several advantages over Internet-based information. The data on a CD is fixed. While it can’t be updated as frequently as online information, neither can it be tampered with or removed. CD-ROM-based data has several advantages over Internet-based information. The data on a CD is fixed. While it can’t be updated as frequently as online information, neither can it be tampered with or removed. We also tend to have greater confidence in commercially produced data that is reviewed and edited. While this process takes place in the Westlaw/Lexis-Nexis environments, much of the free information on the Internet is not edited or refereed, and is produced by individuals or groups with a particular interest. This interest can introduce bias into the information. For these reasons, CD-ROM content is often more reliable than Internet-based information.

Additionally, the Internet is not yet a comprehensive source of legal, or other, information. William Miller, writing for The Chronicle of Higher Education points out several of the myths people share about online information. Those myths include: "All information is now available electronically;" and "All information is available for free somewhere on the World Wide Web if only one is clever enough to be able to find it." (Miller, p.A44) Mr. Miller is correct. There are very good, detailed sites on the Web containing legal information. The federal and many state governments have dramatically increased not only the legal content of their sites, but also the ease with which information can be found. Many of the major research institutions in the US have also developed high quality sites for finding legal information. The Legal Information Institute at Cornell University is a great example of the quality information which can be found on the Internet. Many law schools are posting a great deal of valuable information, most of it from the public domain, on their Web sites. But much of the information that is not in the public domain is not likely to be available on the Internet for free any time soon. In spite of the volume of information available for free on the Web, most publishers will not post copyright protected information there for free, especially if there is a significant market value for that information.

Finally, Internet access introduces some new policy and management problems and costs to the library as well. CD-ROM database access does not require the librarian to monitor, worry about, or purchase filtering software to prevent people using library computers to enter chat rooms, engage in online games such as Dungeons and Dragons, downloading sexually explicit material or viruses, or other inappropriate uses of library resources. CD-ROM databases present a contained environment.

At our library we try to find a balance between the use of the resources available. We want to provide accurate and timely information to our patrons, but don’t want to waste taxpayer dollars. That means that our searching usually starts on our CD-ROM network, especially for broad topical questions. If the topic can be sufficiently narrowed to a few cases or a given section of the code, we can then print the full text or an abstract. The official copies can be accessed in print or microform. We are aware that print and CD-ROM sources are not the most current. At this point the reference librarians can access Westlaw or Lexis/Nexis, to check the citations and to "shepardize" the law or case in question. Utilizing all available formats of information we can provide an accurate, timely, and cost-effective answer to most reference questions.

We want to provide accurate and timely information to our patrons, but don’t want to waste taxpayer dollars. That means that our searching usually starts on our CD-ROM network, especially for broad topical questions.
 

Conclusion

The fact is that one source of legal information, be it paper, microforms, CD-ROM or online data, will not now (nor ever, I predict) serve to meet all of our legal information needs. In all likelihood we will continue to use a broad mixture of these formats in our libraries. No single technology is capable of replacing the others, and each will continue to coexist in law libraries for the foreseeable future. So plan on keeping those little silver discs spinning and don’t expect to reach the end of the CD-ROM "bridge" any time soon.

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Sources

Brake, David, "Lost in Cyberspace" New Scientist, 7/3/97 IPC Magazines LTD. 1997.

CD-ROMs in Print 1995, Meckler Publishing, Westport, CT: 1995.

Gale Directory of Databases 1997, Vol.1 Gale Publishing, Detroit: 1997.

Markoff, John, "Human Error Plays Havoc with Internet," New York Times Fax Edition, Friday, July 18, 1997, p.3.

Miller, William, "Troubling Myths about On-Line Information," The Chronicle of Higher Education, August 1, 1997, p. A44.