Talking About Public Access:
PACS-L’s First Decade

Walt Crawford

Sharing ideas, information, perspectives and views: a human need and one core aspect of librarianship. That’s one reason LITA’s Interest Groups, the Discussion Groups in other ALA divisions, and ALA’s Round Tables are so popular. Computers have helped people to share perspectives for years, going back long before the World Wide Web. One key tool has been e-mail list processing software, usually called "list servers." Perhaps the largest e-mail list in the library field, and one of the oldest and most significant, is the Public-Access Computer Systems Forum, usually called PACS-L.

PACS-L began more than a decade ago and disappeared ten years after it began. I thought PACS-L deserved a tribute of sorts—an informal examination of those ten years. This is a tribute, not a memorial: PACS-L came back to life in March 2000, with a new team of moderators and a refreshed spirit. Read on—and consider whether PACS-L makes sense as part of your web of communications.

PACS-L Begins

Thursday, June 29, 1989, 2:21 p.m. Central Daylight Time: "Welcome to the Public-Access Computer Systems Forum, a computer conference dedicated to discussions of all systems that libraries make available to patrons." That’s how Charles Bailey, Jr. of the University of Houston kicked off the PACS-L email list. During the next ten years, more than 18,000 messages reached an audience that grew to more than 10,000 people, covering a wide and sometimes wild variety of topics related to computers, libraries, and their users.

"What can this conference be used for? You can share information about services you offer, products you use, projects you are engaged in, and things that you have read. You can survey conference participants about things that interest you. You can float ideas and see what people think. And, of course, you can stand on a soapbox and tell us your point of view." We did all that and more. Threads that began on PACS-L influenced systems and careers within the field.

There was no Web in 1989, and even the Internet was unknown to most of us. PACS-L used Listserv® mail processing software and nearly all that mail went out over BITNET, the Because It’s Time Network that linked academic institutions through usually reliable e-mail. When most of us thought about public-access computer systems in libraries, we meant online catalogs and circulation systems, CD-ROM databases (standalone or networked), locally loaded databases in a few large academic libraries, and a few online services such as Dialog and BRS/Search (if libraries could afford to offer direct searching to patrons).

PACS-L came out of the University of Houston Libraries. There was never a direct connection to LITA, but the relationships were close and complex. Indeed, the first message on PACS-L (other than test messages) wasn’t the June 29 welcome. The first message came a day earlier, also from Charles Bailey: "The latest issue of Information Technology and Libraries is devoted to ‘Locally Loaded Databases in Online Library Systems’ … It’s an interesting issue that provides a good overview about different approaches to providing local database and stimulates thought about where we are going…"

PACS-L was not the first library list, but it was the first with broad appeal. Charles Bailey notes: "In 1989, the few library automation lists that existed were narrowly focused on specific vendor systems (e.g., NOTIS-L). My primary job responsibilities were in the emerging area of public services automation. Mailing lists seemed to me to be a very powerful tool; however, there wasn’t a list for public services automation. I felt that there was the need for a list that would encourage discussions on a broad range of topics in this increasingly important area. With the support of Robin Downes (then Director of the University of Houston Libraries), I established PACS-L."

Bailey went on to found PACS Review and served as its editor through 1996. He began an electronic newsletter in March 1990, Public-Access Computer Systems News, to distribute relevant press releases in a consolidated, edited format. He also began a specialized list catering to library serials departments, PACS-P, consisting solely of electronic publications associated with or distributed through PACS-L. Beginning in September 1990, he prepared and maintained Library-Oriented Computer Conferences, later Library-Oriented Lists and Electronic Serials. In October 1996, he began publishing the Scholarly Electronic Publishing Bibliography, a regularly updated electronic publication that grew out of a PACS Review article on the topic.

PACS-L’s Early Months

Word of PACS-L spread through various library channels; people began to subscribe and post immediately. Steve Cisler (Apple Computer) showed up June 30, forwarding a lengthy and provocative announcement of Common Knowledge that began, "Libraries were created to share, but have become isolated and strangled by their dependence upon information merchants for many of their basic needs. Common Knowledge provides an alternative…" Remember Common Knowledge? At the time, it was quite a sensation; in the long run, "information merchants" (including the nonprofit organizations such as OCLC and RLG that Common Knowledge seemed primarily aimed at) continue to play important roles in making libraries work. Steve Cisler contributed inspiration and knowledge on many fronts in more than 120 postings over the next six years, before Apple closed its library.

The first message from outside the United States arrived July 3, when Richard Gartner (Oxford Polytechnic) noted "We at Oxford Polytechnic, UK, are only just starting our CD-ROM service … Has anyone already set up a working networked CD-ROM service? If so I would be very grateful for anything you could tell me about it—what software you use, who has access, how it’s organized etc. I’ll let everyone know how we get on as we progress." People discussed CD-ROM databases (whether standalone, networked, or emulated on minicomputers) for years, sharing their experiences and pondering the vagaries of CD-ROM performance and search interfaces. Tom Wilson (University of Houston) entered the fray later in July 1989, noting the hunger of Wilson databases (no relation, as he noted) for RAM and offering ways to satisfy them. Here, as in other cases, people solved problems by relying on the experiences of others: that’s been a major benefit of PACS-L and other such lists throughout their history.

The first full month of PACS-L postings saw 232 postings from 96 different people. All but 16 of those postings were discussions, questions, and answers, as opposed to the announcements and job listings that came to dominate PACS-L in later years. By my calculations, July 1989 had the most topical postings of any month in PACS-L’s history—but that’s a misleading figure. In late August 1989, responding to a perceived onslaught of personal messages on the list, Charles Bailey decided to moderate the list, screening all messages before they were distributed. Later moderation included grouping short questions, answers, and related postings into longer messages, so that a single posted message might include half a dozen original postings.

Several of the people who defined the character of PACS-L first posted in July 1989. Selden Deemer (Emory) discussed the prevalence of viruses on Macintosh computers (back then, Macs were more virus-prone than PCs). Katharina Klemperer (then at Dartmouth) discussed lists of online catalogs available over the internet. Roy Tennant (UC Berkeley) questioned the concept of broadcast searches. Rich Meyer (then at Clemson) wondered what the Internet was and promoted competition to OCLC. Mark Hinnebusch (Florida Center for Library Automation) addressed a range of topics. Nancy John, David McDonald, Judith Hopkins, Chris Borgman, Andrew Perry, Ed Valauskas and Scott Muir all began posting that month, as did Craig Summerhill—and, for that matter, Walt Crawford. Topics included hypercard, expert systems, SPIRES, EPIC—and Bailey’s first message leading to establishment of The Public-Access Computer Systems Review, the refereed electronic journal that emerged from PACS-L in January 1990.

Ronald Schuetz (Franklin College) comments: "I can remember when PACS-L was the list to join. If anything important was afoot with technology in libraries, you would hear about it there. It was for me Information Central of the Library World." Brian Nielsen (Northwestern) also remembers the excitement of the early years: "When PACS-L started, I recall great excitement in finding people who were thinking along the same lines I was. In those days the PACS-L community seemed small but vigorous, a group of folks who were communicating intensely over email because there was nobody within our immediate work environments who "got it" about what was happening with computer networking in the world outside of libraries. It was library geekdom."

PACS-L was broad and sometimes shallow, with posts touching many topics and relatively few sustained discussions on topics of continuing interest. In August 1989, for example, 192 topical postings (out of 206 total postings) covered 114 different topics as listed in the PACS-L archives. (The archives can be misleading, as topics appear based on specific subject lines and some posters tended to change subject lines during the course of a discussion. In this case, mea culpa: I was frequently guilty of combining topics and shifting subject lines.)

During August 1989, PACS-L people read about Senate bill 1097, the National High Performance Computer Technology Act, which created NREN, the high-speed backbone that made the Internet an effective tool for research and education. That bill was introduced by Senator Albert Gore, Jr. of Tennessee; while he didn’t invent the Internet (and never actually claimed to do so), he did sponsor a critical step in making it flourish.

The Internet and its relationship to libraries (and their catalogs) continued as a topic for several years—until we were all on the Internet. In August 1989, we saw minutes from OCLC’s Research Library Advisory Committee explaining why OCLC wasn’t using the Internet to provide its services. Their reasoning was correct for 1989—at that time, it would "likely result in a significant degradation of service for OCLC members and users." RLG also maintained its own private network at that point and (as with OCLC) continued to do so until the Internet could provide the consistent quality and cost-effectiveness that libraries needed.

The list of active participants in August 1989 was even longer than in July: 103 different posters provided 206 messages, all but 14 of them discussions or questions and answers. New topics included online catalog design (an ongoing topic throughout the decade) and whether Internet access to local catalogs might be burdensome (it wouldn’t be and hasn’t been).

Later that year, PACS-L had early discussions of dropping printed indexes when CD-ROMs were available; what record elements belong in an OPAC display; and the academic library of the future. People asked specific questions and usually received specific answers. Some of us offered strong opinions, sometimes surrounding rants with "flame on" and "flame off"—and I’m sure most of us never quite realized that those messages would be archived and easily searchable to this day!

Bernie Sloan (Illinois) notes that his first PACS-L message was sent on October 3, 1989. "The topic was database pricing and access. At the time, I thought we were pretty close to figuring out the issues related to database access and pricing. So, what am I doing today? Grappling with database pricing and access issues! And things don’t seem any closer to resolution." Not that there weren’t some great ideas offered. Kathy Klemperer considered the flaws in common database pricing models of the time and offered a prescient solution: "What I would like to see some vendor do is to charge based on the maximum number of simultaneous users of the database." In 1989, that was a novel idea; in 2000, it’s a common pricing model.

PACS-L in the Nineties

January 3, 1990 saw the first issue of The Public-Access Computer Systems Review, frequently known as PACS Review. That first issue included four refereed articles, an editorial, a column, and two book reviews; two more multi-article issues followed that year. It was a strong start for a new journal: when republished two years later by LITA as a single paperback (transformed from pure ASCII text to proportional type), the volume required 216 6x9" pages. The journal had an international editorial board and published contributions from authors such as Ann Okerson, Stevan Harnad, Clifford Lynch, Terry Noreault, Caroline Arms, Eric Lease Morgan, and Patricia Caplan. Although it has languished in recent years, PACS Review provided major contributions to the literature of the field through most of the 1990s.

January 1990 also offered an early example of another theme most Internet users have come to know too well: the persistent Internet hoax. This one was the FCC modem surcharge proposal; it’s a hoax that continues to this day (although the details have changed). George Rickerson commented at the time, "I wish we could all agree to check out rumors we receive before posting them. These things are sort of like verbal ‘viruses’—they spread quickly, result in the expenditure of unnecessary time and effort, and damage the credibility of such resources as PACS-L." Today, there are Web clearinghouses for these continuing hoaxes—but like the $250 cookie recipe, the hoaxes keep making the rounds.

Topics from PACS-L’s first six months continued, joined by new ones relating to many aspects of library technology. We heard about a new organization formed in 1990: the Coalition for Networked Information. People discussed appropriate ways to cite articles in electronic journals—and the more difficult problem of citing "raw" messages in PACS-L and similar lists. People compared use statistics for large online catalogs—e.g., in October 1990, ILLINET users initiated 7.9 million transactions, MELVYL users executed 1.5 million FIND commands and displayed 13.9 million records, and Georgia State showed 796 thousand transactions. PACS-L itself passed 1,000 subscribers by March 1990; it reached 2,000 subscribers in February 1991 and 3,000 subscribers that November.

Libraries and technology have been changing for decades, and people discussed near-term and long-term changes throughout the nineties. One question was, "What’s looming on the horizon that may someday replace CD-ROM technology in libraries?" Answers included, "Online, of course" (meaning locally-mounted files), WORM optical drives, and a sensible suggestion from Genny Engel (University of California) that it wasn’t a question of one technology replacing another: "Remaining wedded to a single technology, be it CD-ROM or catalog cards, is what will be most likely to stultify the development of services at your library."

One note along the way seems astonishing now, given changing prices: "What library system has the luxury of just running out and buying multiple disk drives for mini or main frames at $20,000 a gigabyte?" As I write this, PC hard disks cost as little as $7 a gigabyte; while mainframe-level drives are more expensive, they’re still well below $100 a gigabyte—and some of us think in terms of how many terabytes (1,024 gigabytes) we’re likely to need.

Remember when CD-ROM drives didn’t necessarily play audio CDs? Postings in mid-1990 discussed that issue, along with Z39.50, PC longevity, Common Command Language (Z39.58, a forgotten standard), the future of ILL, and the nature of help screens.

PACS-L still predominantly served BITNET in the early 1990s. Of 102 postings in December 1990, 23 came from Internet addresses. In June 1991, 74 of 219 postings were from Internet addresses; in December of that year, 47 of 135 came from the Internet. The pace picked up in 1992: 40% Internet postings in June, 42% in December. In 1993, postings from Internet addresses became the majority: 59% in June, 53% in December. By June 1994, all PACS-L postings were from Internet addresses (except those from the moderators); BITNET was essentially gone.

PACS-L kept growing, reaching 4,000 subscribers in June 1992; 5,000 subscribers that December; 6,000 by April 1993; and 7,000 that October. The 8,000 mark was reached by March 1994, 9,000 by February 1995, and 10,000 by February 1996. The list itself never reached 11,000 subscribers, and by 1996 many other specialized library lists had joined the fairly general PACS-L.

PACS-L Personalities

PACS-L never lacked for personalities: people with strong views and distinctive ways of expressing them. Unlike many contemporary discussion systems, PACS-L never suffered from anonymous or pseudonymous postings. We knew who was saying these things, and in many cases we knew the person behind the text.

That could lead to problems. Library people may be strong defenders of the First Amendment, but we’re sometimes happier with that defense in the abstract than in the concrete. Some PACS-L subscribers took offense at postings they considered irrelevant or offensive. Flame wars erupted, although never with the heat of some other computer-based discussion groups.

Bill Drew (SUNY Morrisville) notes his own early indoctrination into flame wars. "One of the first experiences I had was when I first announced the availability of Not Just Cows [Drew’s annotated agriculture bibliography] as a plain text file and asked for input on making it more widely accessible. One person flamed me very badly and accused me of violating the culture of the Internet. Everyone came to my defense and said I had done the right thing. I knew then what a great community PACS-L was."

But that community had its limits. Two people in particular, both outside the library field, seemed to post so often (and with such limited relevance to the list’s focus as others saw it) that participants became vocally upset. Then as now, the best response to postings you don’t care about is to delete them—but the human tendency is to complain. Jennifer Heise (Lehigh University) notes: "One of the dark spots of PACS-L, for me, was when people began to spend more time complaining about [certain] postings than discussing actual library questions. Maybe all the library questions went into abeyance during that time, or maybe the list had just reached its ‘grumpy old professor’ stage."

PACS-L moderators acted lightly where there was any sense that free speech might be at issue. When in doubt, moderators chose to post rather than prohibit—PACS-L, after all, is a library list. They passed along postings that bothered some of us, but most of us eventually realized that the solution to problematic postings was the Del key.

Futures Past

Long-gone technology "trends" turned up from time to time, mixed with ongoing concerns. In 1989, a summary on multimedia asserted that the multimedia market could reach $17 billion by 1994 and that "two of the hottest technologies for PCs are Digital Video Interactive (DVI) and Compact Disk-Interactive (CD-I)." The 1994 forecast was off by an order of magnitude. DVI never emerged as a significant marketplace technology, while CD-I was submerged in the more general CD-ROM marketplace. In 1991, posters lauded the virtues of bright gas plasma screens on early portable computers—screens that soon disappeared from portable computers and are only now reappearing (in color rather than monochrome) on incredibly expensive home theater displays.

Overeager futurists have been with us for years and have sometimes set out to undermine libraries. As forwarded in a 1994 PACS-L posting, a Canadian futurist attacked the funding of a new Vancouver Public Library, asserting that "the entire contents of the library can be put on one 12-inch optical-format disc called S.E.R.O.D.S. (Surface Enhanced Optical Data Storage). Politicians who supported the library will start having the shelf-life of fruit flies." There never was a commercially-available "S.E.R.O.D.S." and there never has been a single commercial optical storage device that could hold a significant fraction of Vancouver or any other major public library. I suspect that the $200 million (Canadian) spent on the new Vancouver public library has turned out to be money well spent.

Sanjay Chadha set forth a series of lengthy projections on the inevitable emergence of virtual libraries, using the short-lived Magazine Rack (a set of magazines on CD-ROM) as one basis for his thesis. "Now for a very reasonable fee, our users have available to them more magazines than they could possibly want, in their own homes, they can print it, cite from it, cut and paste materials, quotes etc., i.e., the utility has improved tremendously and the cost is minimal at best." Magazine Rack was defunct shortly thereafter; print magazines are doing just fine. Whatever his status as a prophet, Chadha offered provocative views that encouraged us to think through our own expectations.

Others joined in with various views on the inevitability and desirability of virtual libraries, a thread that never died. After one participant asserted that "there will be increased pressure on hard-copy libraries to relinquish their precious space and with it their physical collections," Dan Lester responded, "For the foreseeable future, books will continue to be published, and most people will prefer them for most uses. Yes, a friendly, fast, easily-readable, cuddly laptop machine may arrive someday, but until it does, books will be preferred for most uses." Steven Kirby wondered "just how useful a creature the virtual library really is," quoting a 1992 RLG report that noted "When push comes to shove, faculty members want materials available on campus. They don’t want to be dependent on other distant libraries for needed materials." Sandra Ballasch offered an insightful summary: "I really don’t think that human nature is likely to change very much at the core in the next 5, 10 or even 100 years. … It seems to me that the new will be added to the old … It is well to remember that sometimes the user of an item (physical or not) really does know what suits him or her best."

Evergreen Topics and New Concerns

Specific design issues for online catalogs remained as a theme through much of the early 1990s—and, for a while, there was heated discussion as to whether card catalogs had any advantages over online catalogs. As with most ongoing discussions, this one soon generated messages complaining that it had gone on for too long, even though its concerns were (and are) central to public-access computer systems in libraries: How do we make computer systems that perform better than manual systems for all users?

Some posters fretted about commercial intrusions into the Internet—but Steve Cisler had been posting from "apple.com" from the first days of PACS-L and commerce had a place on the Internet even in those innocent days, years before the first banner ads in browsers. Other posters grumbled in 1992 when PACS Review appeared in an annual print edition. They argued that offering a typeset print version weakened the innovation or purity of the electronic journal. The editorial board had carried on a vigorous discussion before approving the print edition, so we weren’t surprised by the arguments.

Are WorldCat and the RLG Union Catalog dinosaurs? Some people thought so in 1992 (although OCLC’s central database wasn’t called WorldCat then), believing that big centralized databases were too expensive and difficult to maintain and that distributed searching would work better. Howard Pasternack (Brown) disagreed sharply: "From a user viewpoint, it is much more efficient to query a central bibliographic database than it is to send out duplicate queries of a repetitive nature to local sites." That was true even before we learned to recognize the enormous differences in indexing and searching logic among local systems. Z39.50 has taught us much about the relative merits of distributed and centralized databases—and has made WorldCat and the RLG Union Catalog even more important.

Contemporary history emerged in odd spurts. On May 10, 1993, one Tim Berners-Lee posted a declaration that "the basic World-Wide Web software from CERN is in the public domain." A month later, Thomas R. Bruce (Cornell) announced the beta release of Cello, a Web browser for Windows 3.1. Mosaic came later, Navigator still later, but the seeds of the Web emerged that year. Even in 1993 there were claims of a "knowledge glut," and later that year there was a fledgling effort to produce an all-volunteer Internet Encyclopedia (later Interpedia).

In 1994, participants could still argue that Gopherspace was superior to the World Wide Web. Gopherspace was more efficient and well established within the library field, while the Web was an upstart of questionable effectiveness. The marketplace resolved that argument quite rapidly—even though, prior to 1995, "marketplace" wasn’t a word inherently associated with the Internet.

The future of libraries had always been a topic. It heated up once more in 1994 with a discussion on the future of faculty and universities themselves. Some posters asserted that France and MINITEL offered the way to the future: force people to go online, by giving them the terminals and taking away the print equivalents (phone books in this case). If people don’t know what’s good for them, it’s up to the government to make the necessary decisions.

PACS-L connected with the real world in a variety of ways. I was always pleased to meet someone whom I’d only known as a PACS-L poster, particularly since most people are much more interesting in person than via e-mail. Linda Dobb (Bowling Green) noted her experience in 1995, when Apple closed its library and she posted a PACS-L message wondering if people had heard about this and expressing her support for Monica Ertel, a long-time advocate for libraries who created the Apple Library Users Newsletter. "As a result of my posting, I actually heard from Monica Ertel—one of my library idols—thanking me for expressing my support. Then I was interviewed (and photographed) by the Chronicle of Higher Education. Apparently a reporter for the Chronicle was lurking on PACS-L…and asked me if I thought there was still a future for Apple in higher education. I said yes. In light of the almost-complete Apple turnaround, I guess I made the right guess."

Remember the end of work? That’s what Jeremy Rifkin proclaimed in a 1995 book and it was the theme of a short but fascinating conversation on PACS-L. Clifford Stoll’s Silicon Snake Oil engendered more discussion—and Edward Vielmetti spoke of his PACS-L postings as evaporating "into the mists of network history, half remembered by a few and glossed over by others." Little did Vielmetti realize that PACS-L, like most lists that survived into the late 1990s, would have a complete archive readily searchable on the Web by author, date, topic, or full text: I could regale you with every posting by or mentioning Vielmetti.

Fading Away

There’s not much to say about the last three years of PACS-L’s first decade. Gopher faded away but online catalog issues remained. The death of books and libraries will always be a popular topic. One or two non-U.S. posters complained about the number of local job and conference announcements on PACS-L—apparently feeling that the University of Houston should be part of the United Nations.

As with some other library lists, PACS-L carried diverse views on Web filtering. We heard the praises of push technology just before it disappeared. PACS-L contributors continued to complain about other contributors. Little by little, most topical discussions on PACS-L faded away, with announcements taking up some of the slack. Finally, in late August 1999, the list disappeared, reappearing half a year later.

Growing Pains:
Popularity, Moderation and Diffusion

When PACS-L began, it had a large handful of subscribers, most of whom were also participants. Back then, many of us checked e-mail no more than once a day, and quite a few people felt inundated by the 10 to 13 messages they received from PACS-L each day—particularly if they were also involved in other lists.

Charles Bailey notes: "At the time, most librarians did not commonly use mailing lists, awareness of networks like BITNET was limited, and e-mail and list server systems were less sophisticated than they are today. … The list grew quickly, but new issues came with this success. Subscribers were not used to getting numerous e-mail messages each day, and some users had e-mail system problems related to the number or size of PACS-L messages. Personal messages, subscription requests sent to the list by mistake, and other inappropriate list messages became increasingly common. In August 1989, I decided to moderate PACS-L to deal with some of these issues."

Bailey stepped down as PACS-L moderator in November 1991 to concentrate on PACS News and PACS Review; Dana Rooks served as lead moderator from November 1991 until January 1997. Linda Thompson, who had been an associate moderator, served as lead moderator from then until the list’s interruption in late 1999.

Moderating has always been a difficult task carried out by University of Houston librarians, with a team of associate moderators assisting the lead moderator. Moderators kept us from being bombarded with misdirected attempts to subscribe to PACS-L, caught most personal messages accidentally sent to the list, and eliminated hundreds of ads, money-making schemes, chain e-mails, and other messages clearly inappropriate for PACS-L. In early years, the software that supported e-mail lists didn’t help that much. Jack Hall, one of the associate PACS-L moderators in the mid-1990s, noted that one thing moderators had to do was "deal with up to 200 ‘error messages’ per day. … It would take about 1½ to 2 hours per day to moderate." Improvements in software cut that down to 45 minutes or less—but that’s still a significant portion of a librarian’s busy day.

Conference moderators took other steps to cope with the perceived excess of e-mail. They forwarded quite a few questions with headings suggesting that responses should go directly to the poster rather than to the list. That assertion cut down on PACS-L traffic, but may have reduced the sharing of knowledge and experience. Moderators also called certain discussions to an end, stating that a given posting or group of postings was the "last on this topic." That did not sit well with some of the more feisty participants—and some of us became lurkers rather than active participants.

Scott Muir (DALNET), one of the earliest PACS-L posters, notes: "One of my biggest frustrations…was that certain postings I sent forward were deemed inappropriate for the list by the moderators. This might include things such as software inquiries, etc. Some of this predated things like LIBSOFT, etc., so I was at a loss as to where to ask such questions and often felt very isolated in looking for real-life experience as opposed to manufacturers’ data." Speaking as a former moderator, Jack Hall remembers that "about the only thing we would commonly reject was postings about specifically technical services aspects of automation," as opposed to the public service aspects that PACS-L was intended for. It’s easy to see in retrospect that the line between public and technical services could be as difficult to draw as the line between advertisement (inappropriate) and announcement (appropriate).

Did moderation make PACS-L less valuable? A better question might be, Could PACS-L have survived into the mid-90s without strong moderation? After researching this article and hearing from the moderators, I’ve come to believe that the answer to the second question is No—which renders the first question moot.

The sheer size of PACS-L, known by the early 1990s as the Big Tent of library-related lists, had two major effects. On one hand, some of us became less willing to let our hair down: We were more guarded in what we posted and what we responded to. Some early posters disappeared entirely; many of us became less involved. On the other hand, PACS-L’s reach made it a popular and valuable place for job postings, conference announcements, and a variety of somewhat peripheral postings. Little by little, topical discussions seemed to be squeezed out.

Nancy Buchanan (an associate moderator in the late 1990s) poses the quandary that PACS-L moderators must have considered as announcements came to dominate the list: "I don’t know what would have been best. Should a topical list view passing on such postings as a positive service (which was the approach PACS-L took), or should it firmly restrict to those announcements directly related to the topic in an effort to refocus? If a list took the latter approach, would there be an outcry about the list being too rigid or having overly restrictive moderators? I wonder if what happened is that the appearance became the perception became the reality. As PACS-L looked more and more like a general announcement list it became perceived as such and in turn became more and more like one."

The numbers are straightforward. In 1990, 86 percent of all postings were original topical postings and responses. By 1992, topical postings had dropped to 70 percent. 1995 was the last year in which a majority of postings were clearly related to topics (as opposed to job listings, program announcements, forwarded messages, and periodic monologues from persistent posters with no interest in discussion). By my reckoning, the topical percentage was down to 43 percent in 1996, and remained around the 40 percent level from then on.

The first week of November 1997 is an extreme example of what happened to PACS-L. There were 15 postings in that week: two job postings, two calls for papers, six announcements for conferences, symposia, and other events, one call for nominations, two postings from Project Gutenberg, one announcement of new publications, and Current Cites for October 1997, a set of literature citations also available by direct subscription. Not one posting in that partial week was designed specifically for PACS-L. There were no questions, no answers, and no discussion. Things rarely got that bad—but in the second quarter of 1998, I counted only 62 topical postings, an average of less than one per weekday.

Diffusion: Other Lists, Other Methods

Bernie Sloan suggests that one reason for the decline of PACS-L was "the retention of fairly tight editorial policies that may have worked well when PACS-L was the only game in town, but didn’t work quite so well given the availability of other (unmoderated) lists"—but he also thinks that PACS-L’s decline had much to do with "the appearance of many other library-related lists (drawing away PACS-L traffic)."

Nancy Buchanan agrees that the most important factor in the decline of PACS-L as a topical forum was "the proliferation of other, more specific lists." There were many other electronic fora available by 1999: hundreds (if not thousands) of library-related lists. To some extent, that explosion of lists diffused the role of PACS-L—but as the largest of all library lists, it continued to be a prime venue for the kind of messages that don’t invite discussion.

Jim Morgan (Indiana University Purdue) notes: "A lot of the lively discussion on PACS-L migrated to other lists. I know when CDROMLAN formed a lot of the important technical discussion migrated there, and when WEB4LIB started up it instantly attracted most of the lively discussion on all topics." Bill Drew comments: "The same hardcore characters show up in lots of the lists. I see several people from PACS-L and WEB4LIB on the new EZProxy list, occasionally on COLLIB-L and even that relatively slow list SYSLIB-L."

These days, you can start your own list even without a computer center to support it—for free, if you don’t mind ads being appended to the postings. But there are many other ways for people to share focused perspectives these days, and those ways also affected PACS-L’s role. How many libraries don’t have some sort of Web presence these days—and how many library people have established their own sites? Bulletin boards, Weblogs, and other tools give us ever more ways to express ourselves and diffuse the energy that we’re likely to put into a single medium. As an odd example of that diffusion, I offer the reason I was acutely aware of the exact date on which PACS-L stopped serving up messages. That was the day that I attempted to post a lengthy commentary on an ongoing peculiar library initiative—but I didn’t post the whole commentary. When earlier PACS-L participants had long, detailed discussions to present, they needed to break them up into multiple messages. Instead, I posted the entire 12,000-word rant on my personal Web site—and sent PACS-L a note directing people to that site. The mechanics had changed considerably—for the better, in most regards. (My announcement never did appear on PACS-L; fortunately, a private note about the commentary resulted in postings on WEB4LIB, PUBLIB, and elsewhere, so that the commentary—unsuitable for formal publication, by my standards—was apparently read by more than a thousand people.)

Did success spoil PACS-L? Not entirely. Lively discussions still emerged, continuing into August 1999—but there were fewer of them, they tended to be more reserved, and I believe that some worthwhile opinions were never stated for fear of flaming and because people didn’t want to be quite that widely heard.

There’s another reason for the decline of PACS-L, noted by Sue Martin (Georgetown): "People became busier." As I was preparing this article, several others offered comments along the same lines. Many of us who were active posters in PACS-L’s early years just don’t have the time these days, particularly for the careful postings needed in lists with PACS-L’s enormous readership.

Why PACS-L Mattered

PACS-L was not the first library-related list service. It was never the most active: for example, AUTOCAT (a cataloging list founded in 1990) frequently has as many postings each day as PACS-L had in most weeks (or in most months after 1997). A library school student posted this message in November 1994: "As part of an assignment I must now identify what function PACS-L serves to the library community. Of all the listservers I follow this listserver generates the least traffic. If anyone out there can provide any information relating to this server…" There were a number of responses—mostly focused on the breadth of PACS-L and the many announcements rather than the forum itself.

As stated in the March 2000 posting announcing the new PACS-L, "PACS-L was one of the first lists to address the issues concerning computers and their use in libraries. Those issues are still with us, but they have evolved with the changing technology to take on an ever-expanding role in the life of libraries and librarians. … Specific technical and service issues are discussed on a multitude of specialized lists, but we believe that PACS-L’s broad scope and emphasis on the end user make it both unique and necessary."

PACS-L was in the right place at the right time, as the Internet was emerging and librarians were considering the range of opportunities and problems made possible by new technologies. Charles Bailey publicized the list effectively, moderated with a light hand, and inserted enough new ideas to keep things lively. We took to PACS-L avidly, and it became an extended community, going beyond U.S. borders and capturing ideas with the brevity and clarity that e-mail encourage. Rick Gates (Net Assets) notes: "Most important was the knowledge that others were going through many of the same systems trials and hardware tribulations that you were. PACS-L reminded you that you were not alone out there."

Did PACS-L postings matter? Yes, on several levels. People got good answers to specific questions, from "What do I buy to replace our aging ThinkJets?" to "Do we really need to show added entries in online catalogs?" Discussions on PACS-L turned into conference programs, articles, and even books.

PACS-L made a difference for many of us, sometimes a profound difference. John Kupersmith (now at Washoe County and UC Berkeley) recalls: "Back in 1991, when we at UT Austin were getting PACS-L via BITNET, I posted a message in a thread on skill development for reference librarians that mentioned the idea of stress management. Ilene Rockman saw it, approached me about writing an article for Reference Services Review, and that kicked off a series of events that so far includes at least 10 workshops, two conference papers, and a book chapter. This was definitely a life-changing event for me!" Walter Giesbrecht (York University) had a similar experience: "One of the bright spots for me was a question I asked about resistance of library staff to the introduction of CD-ROM services. Of the 25 or so responses I got, two were from journal editors asking me if I was interested in writing an article based on the responses. My publication record…took off from there."

Caroline Arms (now at the Library of Congress) recalls her August 1989 posting (attempting to explain the differences between Internet and BITNET) and wondering whether she could promote the book from which that explanation came, Campus Strategies for Libraries and Electronic Information. "Remember, this was when commercial use of these networks was frowned on. I decided that if I couldn’t tell people on a library list how they could get a book about libraries, that didn’t make much sense. Editing that book persuaded me that interesting things would be going on in libraries for a computing person. Since then, I’ve spent five years in a medical library and now close to five at the Library of Congress…helping to bring you American Memory. And I’ve lurked on the PACS-L list most of that time." She goes on to say that she feels that PACS-L has been "a good way to maintain a sense of general progress" and that she can "understand the context for what [long-time posters] are saying even when it isn’t explicit."

What did PACS-L do for me? Sanjay Chadha’s posts (along with other postings and articles) pushed me to deliver a speech in Arizona in October 1992 on the future of libraries and print. That, in turn, resulted in several dozen speeches, several articles, and two books in the last eight years. PACS-L highlighted important issues along with technical details and brought forth substantive discussions on significant topics. That’s not to discount the announcement functions: as editor of the LITA Newsletter during the early 1990s, I recruited quite a few writers through PACS-L postings. And, of course, I used the new PACS-L to gather most of the personal comments scattered throughout this article.

At best, PACS-L made us think and helped us see different aspects of libraries and technology. In the early years (and sometimes more recently), it let us see one another’s humanity as people expressed feelings that they might never say at a conference. It also publicized jobs, conferences, and conference programs to thousands of librarians: that may not have been its original role, but it was a significant service to the field.

PACS-L Reborn!

PACS-L had a great decade, even if it weakened towards the end. But endings aren’t always final. On March 1, 2000, Marianne Bracke of the University of Houston sent out a new posting with the subject "PACS-L is back!" Portions of that message follow.

"Greetings from PACS-L! After several months of inactivity, the list is up and running again, now with a new staff of moderators and a renewed sense of purpose. … We would like to reaffirm PACS-L’s commitment to a wide-ranging exploration of technology in libraries and its implications for library users. … We hope that subscribers will use PACS-L not only as a technical helpline or bulletin board, but also as a forum in which to share the problems, solutions, philosophical issues, and practical concerns that stem from the increased and accelerating use of technology in libraries."

The new PACS-L has a new trio of moderators, who provided their thoughts on restarting the list. Marianne Stowell Bracke and J. Michael Thompson comment: "When we first started working on the project to get PACS-L up and running again, we began by reviewing the list’s overall purpose. When we considered issues discussed during energetic meetings at ALA conventions, comments solicited from our colleagues, and postings submitted to other lists (yes, we lurk too), we were convinced that the librarians facing technology-related issues today want and need a forum to discuss them. … We have tried to create a fresh, revitalized focus for PACS-L that fulfills a known need.

Anne Mitchell notes: "Historically, PACS-L has been most vigorous and most appreciated when it has dealt with library technology in a wide-ranging, general way. We hope that PACS-L will continue to be a forum for people to discuss the broad implications of technology in libraries, as well as voice their immediate ideas, solutions, and concerns." J. Michael Thompson further comments: "End-users are the ‘why’ of library operations while technology is part of the ‘how.’ The how should be driven by the why. This relationship of technology to end-user should be considered even in cases where the effect is indirect because only internal operations are being influenced directly."

The new moderators noted some questions that deserve further attention on PACS-L and in the literature. These questions show some of the breadth and depth hoped for in the next decade—and none of them has simple answers:

  • Has technology made the library easier to use?
  • Has electronic access increased or decreased the accessibility of resources?
  • What are the conversion, cost and operational issues associated with using specific technologies?
  • How have technological innovations changed operational processes and the relationship between departments?
  • How has technology altered the notion of the library and the librarian?

PACS-L is reborn. Will it be a vital forum, or will it be dominated by announcements and job postings? Only time will tell—time, and the will of PACS-L subscribers old and new. The first decade was remarkable despite its problems. There’s room and need for a strong PACS-L in the new century as well. If you care about public-access computer systems in libraries, maybe you should be part of PACS-L.


Sidebar: PACS-L and Other Lists

Except for quotations, everything here represents my own judgment and opinions. I determined which postings were topical—and doubtless excluded some that others might consider to be precisely on topic. You don’t have to accept my opinion. If you have the time and desire, you can do your own review of PACS-L. The archive is available and fully searchable at http://listserv.uh.edu/archives/pacs-l.html.

Point to http://info.lib.uh.edu/libpubs.htm to reach all of the University of Houston’s electronic publications, or go directly to these specific addresses:

Many other lists have emerged, too many to mention here. Some survive without moderation (e.g., WEB4LIB); some are moderated with a remarkably light touch (e.g., PUBLIB). Some have been known for their flamewars and intense discussions (e.g., AUTOCAT) while many have been so narrow as to be nearly invisible (e.g., EUREKA-L).

In an era when the Web seems synonymous with the Internet, the continuing health of e-mail and list servers may be remarkable. Good lists take advantage of the Web through searchable archives, but most list servers rely on mail protocols similar to those used in 1989 and before. Lists certainly aren’t the only way to share information, but they continue to be one of the easiest to start and administer, and one of the few network forms of "push technology" that seems to work well.

Looking for a few good library-related lists? Point your Web browser to http://www.wrlc.org/liblists/ to find the current version of Library-Oriented Lists & Electronic Serials. You can work from that Web site to find out about lists, go to available archives, and (in some cases) sign up on the spot.


Written and posted April 2, 2000

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