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