Finding Articles: Periodical Indexes, Databases and ‘Free Text’

When Olin Library opened in 1961, searching for periodical articles on any subject required the use of printed annual indexes, such as Psychological Abstracts or Writings on American History. Constrained by rigid, broad subject schemes, researchers conducting literature reviews in the humanities and social sciences had to pore through multiple volumes one by one, recording citations by hand, hoping nothing important was being overlooked, and perhaps finding that a crucial volume was missing or in use.

A partial solution emerged in the 1970s, as publishers of periodical indexes converted citations to machine-readable data. Commercial vendors leased content and stored it in centralized databases that were accessible via telephone connection. Citations could be retrieved across multiple years — using “free text” keywords — in minutes. Along with other campus libraries, Olin Reference took advantage of this technology in February 1978 by offering the Computer-Assisted Search Service (COMPASS).

Because online interfaces were far from user-friendly; searches were performed by trained librarians who determined which databases, terms, and strategies were most appropriate for the subject. Efficiency was paramount, as COMPASS was a fee-based service and clients were charged for every minute spent online and for each citation retrieved.

With the advent of periodical indexes on compact disc in the mid-1980s, CD-ROM workstations in Olin gave patrons the ability to search on their own, free of charge. Still, not all databases were available in CD format. Use was limited to one person at a time, and a single compact disc held far less data than its online counterpart.

But in the early 1990s, advances in communications technology and systems interoperability enabled the Library to offer online access to many periodical resources once exclusively available in print. Today, the Library interface not only connects researchers to hundreds of article databases, but to the articles themselves.

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