Having received a number of inquiries from librarians about the state of the art of providing off-site patrons with access to library catalogs by using cable television facilities, the Contributing Editor has undertaken a brief survey of the developments in off-site public access using not only cable, but also other technologies.
With an estimated 21 million U.S. homes connected to cable television services, simple linkages with library catalogs would offer the opportunity for enhanced library service to patrons in either their homes or offices. At least three of the major vendors of turnkey library automated systems are actively working on such cable linkage.
Following the philosophy that a library user should not need to purchase any additional equipment to be able to access a library catalog via cable, C L Systems, Inc. (CLSI) is pursuing the development of a linkage which requires only that the user have a telephone and a television receiver with cable access. In the initial development phase, the library patron telephones the library and addresses an inquiry to a member of the library staff who searches it against the on-line catalog using an Apple microcomputer as the terminal. The system response to the inquiry scrolls onto the cable as it appears on the terminal screen. The number of characters per line has been reduced from 80 to 40 to improve legibility on the television receiver. Although the system has been installed in the Iowa City Public Library it is not yet being utilized. The library has elected to await phase two of the CLSI program which would permit users with Touch-Tone telephones to directly access and interrogate the catalog without the intervention of a library staff member. Upon being connected with the Apple micro the patron would get a menu display and would then make selections by punching numbers on his or her Touch-Tone telephone which correspond to the numbered options on the screen. Once the direct access facility is available-the development is projected for later this year-Iowa City plans to target its initial service at local schools and institutions rather than to individual patrons in their homes.
Cincinnati Electronics (CE) is pursuing the development of a similar linkage with the Lexington Public Library in Kentucky in conjunction with the installation of a CE circulation system. When the systems are installed and operational-the projected target date is August 1982-the interface will permit the results of a catalog search performed by a library staff member in response to a telephone request from a patron to be displayed on the patron's television.
DataPhase is working with the New Orleans Public Library to develop off-site access via cable TV to the library's planned patron access catalog. In an interview, DataPhase president, Sheldon Roufa, opined that all current work on cable access by DataPhase or other turnkey vendors is in the experimental phase. Roufa does not expect operational systems to be effective until cable companies fully support two-way or interactive cable television.
While the use of a telephone and an unmodified television receiver has the advantage of utilizing technologies already available in many homes and offices, it does not make efficient use of the cable capacity because a single inquiry ties up an entire channel-a channel which, in other applications could handle the equivalent of up to a thousand simultaneous transactions. The organizations working on off-site access are keenly aware of this and are also planning for future systems that would use either high-speed digital devices at both ends of a cable or telephone line, or videotex systems which require modification of the television receiver. The latter has been more thoroughly researched.
Videotex is the generic name for information retrieval via a modified home television set. Information may be transmitted over telephone lines or cable. It is distinguishable from teletext which broadcasts information to the home by putting it in the unused black space between the frames (known as the vertical blanking interval). By use of wiring, videotex systems can be two-way or interactive. A large computer is used at the "head end" of the system so that many users can be served at one time. A decoder attached to the home television receiver can accept data at a faster rate than a conventional television set and can also be used to formulate control signals to be sent back to the host computer.
The Channel 2000 project conducted by OCLC in 1980 focused on one type of videotex system called Viewdata. This system uses a decoder which links the television set to the telephone. A user can communicate with the host computer via telephone as instructed by a message on the television screen. Once the user is logged on, the system displays frames of information on the home television screen. The user can choose the display by punching the appropriate touch-tone numbers on the telephone. The library catalog of the Columbus Public Library was one of the files made available to the participants in the trial.
OCLC has also undertaken joint experiments with Warner Communications and American Express using QUBE, a two-way cable system with limited interactive ability. The QUBE system does not allow on-demand provision of information; rather it uses a polling technique; the host computer solicits responses to specific questions from the users and computes the results. Having completed two major experiments, OCLC is continuing to explore and assess the possibilities for off-site delivery of information and has renamed its project Viewtel.
The Pikes Peak Public Library, which developed the Maggie's Place automated library system has opted to rely on digital devices at both ends. It provides dial-up access to a limited number of its patrons who have terminals or personal computers at home. For those who lack the equipment, the library has installed a remote computer terminal in a booth in a supermarket. Using this terminal, a patron can logon in the same way as a user at home. Since these users are usually less experienced than those who own their own equipment, a telephone is provided for voice communication with the library staff.
At this stage it is difficult to predict the future of simple cable linkages between library systems and offsite users: we were unable to locate any libraries actually using cable in this way, although several expected to begin such services within the year. With current trends towards diminishing staff resources it seems unlikely that the least sophisticated application which requires full participation of a library staff member in the searching process will gain widespread popularity. Likewise, the need for a terminal to be dedicated to each simultaneous inquirer in the direct access systems posited for development in the near future would appear to limit their range of attractive applications.
The videotex option is potentially more cost and service effective, but it will have to offer far more than library services for the economics of scale to be realized. There are currently more than 250 videotex experiments being conducted in Europe and North America using several competing systems. It may be several years before operational systems will be available to libraries that wish to provide access to off-site users.
Any approach that requires that off-site users have their own computer terminals limits access to the more affluent. However, there are projections that the number of personal computers will increase twenty-fold in the next four years given present price trends. If the new chip described in the next section becomes available by 1985, the rate of growth may be even greater. The "cable-ing" of the catalog is not a certainty but there are several options which warrant exploration. We agree with Sheldon Roufa's assessment that all of the work is still in the experimental stage.
[ILLUSTRATION]"Commander Codie," the computer terminal which provides off-site access to the inventory of the Pikes Peak Public Library from a local supermarket.