Hopkins in Cyberspace By Mike Field Eisenhower Library patrons will have an opportunity to test-drive two computer library catalog systems later this month, in a unique experiment aimed at eliciting user response in choosing the library's next generation of computer systems. "To my knowledge this is something that hasn't been tried before," said Todd Kelley, coordinator of library instruction and electronic services at the library. "We are anxious to find out what our patrons think of each system before we make a commitment to purchase." Though many lament the demise of the venerable card catalog, modern computer library catalog systems offer certain advantages that should convince even the grumpiest computerphobe of their worth. Foremost among them is the ability to access and search the system remotely, often from the comfort of an individual's desktop computer. "Statistics show that remote usage of Janus [the Eisenhower Library's computer catalog system] just keeps going up and up," Kelley said. "We introduced remote access a few years ago and since then it has just exploded. In fiscal year 1992-93 there were 117,000 remote accesses. Last year, there were 165,959, a growth of 41 percent. We expect that growth to continue in the foreseeable future." The library's new computer system will make such remote visits easier, quicker and more useful to patrons. It will also add an array of improved services available at the library's own terminals. Part of the improvement in ease of access and use relates to the underlying change in computer technology that has occurred since the library's current system was installed in 1986. That system operates on a single mainframe computer housed in the basement of Garland Hall. It is a machine so powerful that it needs its own water supply to keep it cool. The new system, by contrast, will employ a distributed computer environment, where smaller machines can work in tandem to perform all the functions- -and more--previously reserved to the mainframe. Distributed computer environments appear to be the wave of the future; in essence, Internet applications such as JHUniverse represent the advent of the age of comparatively small, nimble computers linked together in ever-changing configurations that share information on demand. An essential component of this new approach is the client/server relationship, an oft-used and frequently misunderstood term that explains how two linked computers relate to one another. One way to keep the terminology straight, Internet experts say, is to think of yourself as the customer in an electronic transaction. The software on your machine that enables you to communicate and access information from another machine is the client; the remote machine that helps you by providing the information is the server. As is often the case in computerese, the term server has come to be used interchangeably for both the remote machine itself and the software on the machine that enables it to provide your computer with information. Often, the distinction is merely academic; what is important is that your computer is the client and the remote computer is the server. "One of the great advantages of the new distributed computer environment has to do with the ease of remote access," Kelley said. "With a new system, we will have the capability to offer our patrons client software that, once installed on their machines, will enable them to use their computers in a familiar manner. "Say you have a Mac. With client software you will be able to query, retrieve, display, save and edit information from the library using all the commands you would normally use on the MAC. Currently, all command functions reside on the host machine--our computer in the basement of Garland--and in order to use our system you have to learn all the commands required by our machine." Currently, the Eisenhower Library is considering two new systems that employ the distributed computer environment. Library staff will conduct intensive, guided tests of the systems from Nov. 16 to 19, said Virginia Massey-Burzio, head of resource services at the library. "This is a blind test designed to elicit feedback from our users and to gain an understanding of their preferences," she said. "We discovered from the current system, which is quite powerful, that power isn't worth much if people don't know how to use it. We really want the next system we install to be user-friendly. Powerful, yet easy to use." Tests of the new systems will be conducted in the library's electronic classroom during certain hours each day. Students, faculty or staff who are interested in participating in the tests, which would involve looking for information and then answering questions about their experience, should contact Jane Keefer at 516-4156 or Mike Tepin at 516-8346.
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