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Remembering CD-ROM after 25 years

CD-ROM World February 1994

Twenty-five years ago, CD-ROM came on the scene as an inexpensive solution to both storage and distribution of information and software. In this era when floppy diskettes were common and disk drives were large in size, expensive, and small in capacity, CD-ROM discs with 640 MB of storage were just the right technology for the distribution of information of information resources to libraries. Discs representing the contents of the abstracting and indexing products or other electronic resources could be mailed to a subscribing library at little expense. CD-ROM technology launched the transition for libraries away from print-based finding aids to much more powerful tools that gave library researchers instant access to relevant resources in their areas of interest.

CD-ROM networking was one of my first areas of specialty. It was an area where I was found opportunities to do research and writing, not just for libraries, but for broader industry publications. I wrote the "Competitive Outlook: Shared CD-ROM for the Workgroup" report for Datapro Information Services Group (now part of Gartner) for 1992-1997 and authored a few features for CD-ROM World including Dream Drives in Feb 1994; for Network World I wrote Solving the need to forage for storage: buyer's guide on optical disc changers and CD-ROM network servers in April 1997. But mostly, this technology provided lots of practical experience for me in my early library career.

Given that CD-ROM stood as the content delivery media for that time, I wanted to find ways to maximize access to this content. Even in those early days, I had a vision for being able to provide access to all of a library’s resources through a single access point. The practical way to achieve that goal involved configuring computer workstations on networks so that they could deliver access to all the CD-ROM products, the library catalog, and other relevant resources.

Lots of obstacles stood in the way: proprietary software applications needed for each brand of CD-ROM product, incompatible network protocols (SNA, TCP/IP, IPX, etc.), and underpowered operating systems and desktop computers (MS-DOS). Our library amassed a collection of dozens, or maybe hundreds, of CD-ROM titles. A combination of terminal emulators for the online catalog, networked CD-ROM towers and network-attached jukeboxes allowed us to largely achieve this goal of providing access to all of the library’s electronic information through the public computer workstations in the library.

I also believed that this same level of access should be possible to remote users of the library, but this wasn’t really possible until the advent of the Web.

CD-ROMs and CD-ROM networks were an important stepping stone along the way for finding tools for library collections based on print, to a reality almost complete today where a library can deliver all these tools and the associated content resources through a single unified Web-based interface, available both in the library and remotely. The continuum from print toward comprehensive digital access might look something like this:

  • Card Catalog / Print Indexes-->
  • online catalog / individual CD-ROM workstations-->
  • Networked CD-ROM A&I + full text/ Online (ProQuest Direct CD-ROMs, eg.)-->
  • Web-based OPAC / Menu of Web-available electronic resources-->
  • Web-based OPAC / Federated search (MetaLib, WebFeat, etc.)-->
  • Next-gen catalogs / Federated search (Primo, Encore, AquaBrowser)-->
  • Discovery interfaces w/comprehensive indexes (Primo Central / Summon, EBSCO Discovery Service)

For the October 1999 issue of Computers in Libraries, I authored a feature Does the Web spell doom for CD and DVD that worked through some of the issues pressing at the time as the Web grew into its dominant position.

Today, only a few vestiges of the CD-ROM era remain. A few titles published on CD-ROM have yet to see equivalents on the Web. Libraries are finding it increasingly difficult to maintain workstations for these ever dwindling CD-ROM products. Once almost ubiquitous in academic libraries, CD-ROM networks have mostly gone extinct.

Looking toward the future, I don’t see CD-ROM—or any other physical media—as having much of a place. The consumer arena made CD-ROM and later DVD cheap storage technologies. Streaming access to content has largely decimated CD-ROM as a format for music and DVD for movies isn’t far behind. The future of content delivery lies in the Web—and increasingly the mobile Web. Print journals have largely made a complete transition from print to electronic form. I think that print book collections will remain vital for the foreseeable future, but e-Books will represent increasingly higher portions of our attention.

In looking back over this 25-year history, I see CD-ROM as an interim technology and a catalyst that sparked a major revolution in the fundamental ways that libraries engage in their mission to provide access to information to their customers.

Marshall Breeding Dec 4, 2010 16:16:46 Link to this thread

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