End-user Searching with CD-ROM Databases
Southern Connecticut State University
(c) 1996 Susan Tinanoff firstname.lastname@example.org Southern Connecticut State University
The Katharine Sharp Review ISSN 1083-5261, No. 2, Winter 1996
This paper examines the impact of CD-ROM databases on end-user searching in libraries. It
reviews several studies dealing with end-user response to CD-ROM database products and
compares them with results of interviews with patrons and librarians in a local public library. It
examines the importance of various factors in the successful use of these products and suggests
ways in which CD-ROM software developers and libraries can increase the value of CD-ROM
databases for end-user searching.
- In recent years the use of CD-ROM database products in libraries has increased dramatically.
In order to improve user access to these products, many libraries have increased the number of
public access workstations with attached CD-ROM drives and/or networked existing drives to
make them accessible from multiple workstations. The introduction of new CD-ROM based
products, the use of multimedia, and improvements in both hardware and software have further
expanded the popularity of CD-ROM technology. In light of these developments, it is important
to consider whether CD-ROM products satisfy user needs. This paper will examine the factors
that contribute to successful use of CD-ROM databases. In addition to reviewing the results of
previous studies in academic libraries, personal observations from a local public library explore the
issue from the perspective of the general library user.
- Several university-based studies have reviewed end-user response to CD-ROM databases. A
survey at Oakland University compared students' attitudes to CD-ROM and print indexes. The
results showed a strong preference for CD-ROM over print versions of the databases. Most
students found the CD-ROM products easy to use and were satisfied with their results. They
tended to use the HELP screens of the products rather than asking librarians for assistance.
However, the survey also indicated that the students were generally unsophisticated in their search
strategies, suggesting the need for librarians to be able to provide bibliographic instruction,
especially for those engaged in serious research (Schultz & Salomon, 1990).
- A 1991 survey of research libraries in the U.S. and Canada found that CD-ROM database
users prefer that medium to print because it is free, convenient, and allows self-service use. Of the
various options for electronic searching, CD-ROM was the most used in the majority of libraries
surveyed (Tenopir & Neufang, 1992a).
- At the Penn State Great Valley graduate center library, the introduction of the Business
Periodicals Ondisc (BPO) full-text CD-ROM not only resulted in a high degree of user
satisfaction but had an impact on ILL (inter-library loan) requests as well. The availability of full
text for many articles resulted in fewer ILL requests, making it more economical for document
delivery. Students reportedly were so pleased with the CD-ROM technology and the full-text
capability that they tended to ignore other resources which might be more appropriate, opting for
convenience over content (Bane, 1995).
- Another study at Illinois State University focused on the results of end-user searching in the
ERIC database, comparing results obtained by library patrons with those obtained by
intermediaries skilled in bibliographic searching techniques. The primary shortcoming of the
inexperienced searchers was their failure to use all of the terms necessary to perform a complete
search. In order to improve the quality of end-user searching, the authors suggest that libraries
provide search training for users as well as search aids. Additionally, the authors favor the use of
alternative search approaches by vendors, such as natural language searching (Lancaster et al.,
- At Arizona State University the search habits of graduate and undergraduate students using
both CD-ROM and online databases were compared. The results showed that simple searches
were used in most cases by both groups of students, even if they had been instructed in more
advanced techniques. Time spent per session was greater for the CD-ROM databases, with
included abstracts, than for the online catalog, without abstracts. Familiarity with the software
was found to decrease the time spent at the terminal as well. Approximately one-quarter of the
students required either online help or staff assistance, in relatively equal proportions, suggesting
that both are necessary (Anderson, 1995).
OBSERVATION OF CD-ROM USE IN A PUBLIC LIBRARY SETTING
- To examine end-user searching with CD-ROM databases in a public library setting, a medium-sized public library, located in a suburban Connecticut community of 60,000, was selected.
Patrons at this library were interviewed after using one of the public access CD-ROM databases
available on the library's CD-ROM LAN. Staff librarians were also interviewed concerning their
perceptions of the use of CD-ROM databases by patrons.
- The CD-ROM LAN in this library consists of a Novell network with a file server and an
optical server running Optinet. Five CD-ROM towers, four 4-bay and one 7-bay, are attached to
the network, for a total of 23 network drives. In addition, there are two standalone drives, each
connected to a single workstation, which house products not licensed for network use. There are
eight workstations currently on the network, four of which are for public access. Two others are
located at the reference desk, and the remaining two are in staff offices. The use of the available
products is controlled through the Saber menu system, a software front-end product which
provides workstation-specific menus for user selection of applications.
- The library's networked CD-ROM databases currently include EBSCO's Magazine
Article Summaries (MAS), Proquest's Newspaper Abstracts, American Business
Disc, Compact Disclosure, The Hartford Courant, PhoneDisc, Contemporary Authors,
ReQuest, Baker & Taylor's B & T Link, and the 1990 U.S. Census. Standalone
databases are Dun's Million Dollar Disc and Discovering Authors. Since all of the library's CD-ROM databases are from different vendors and most have different content and purposes, their
interfaces also vary greatly. Most have a title or welcome screen followed by a main menu of
functions or a menu of databases to search. A few, such as MAS, have a tutorial, which can be
accessed from one of the initial screens by a function key or by selecting it from a menu. Since
none of these products are Windows-based, there is no mouse for selecting options. Instead the
arrow keys are generally used to highlight options and the "Enter" key to select them. Several of
the products employ multiple interface types, most commonly menus for the initial screens
followed by a prompt for entry of search terms. Some have different levels of features to
accommodate different user abilities (MAS, Hartford Courant). Newspaper
Abstracts, MAS and level 2 of the Hartford Courant database provide the
option to browse an index of subjects or terms by pressing a function key (F6, F8, and F5,
respectively). After the desired search terms have been entered, the search may be initiated by
pressing a function key (F2 in MAS, F10 in Duns) or the Enter key (as in Newspaper
Abstracts). The approaches to the display, printing and downloading of results are equally
varied among these databases. To compensate for the variation in interfaces among the various
products on the network, quick reference guides for each product have been placed at the public
Summary of Patron Interviews
- Six different databases were used during the observation period. Of the twelve patrons
interviewed (Appendix 1), half were using the selected database for the first
time. All found the databases easy to use, although the new users required initial assistance from a
librarian. Only two people used the on-screen help in constructing a search. A few seemed to
think that the help feature referred to labels next to the function keys (e.g., F6=Print). The
remainder said they did not need it.
- With one exception, all felt that their searches were successful, although only three made use
of features to narrow their searches and two of those simply limited a PhoneDisc
search by city, state or some other field. Those who used products which offer abstracts or full-text, such as MAS, found this feature to be valuable. One person mentioned subject headings as
the most helpful feature of the chosen software; one liked the ability to limit or qualify a search;
another liked the ability to use multiple criteria in searching a business database. Other features
mentioned included user friendliness, easy of use, speed, intuitiveness, and function keys.
- Suggested improvements to make the products more user-friendly included initial orientation
for new users to increase the comfort level with the product, more databases with full text,
proposed related terms if a search term fails to come up with any hits, indication of local holdings,
and more frequent updates. One asked for a mouse and icons. Half of the patrons either had used
only one database or had no opinion about the different software interfaces. The other half
seemed to be evenly split over whether all of the databases should have a common interface or
remain product-specific. Most of the patrons interviewed said that they preferred CD-ROM based
searching to using print indices or on-line searching because of ease of use or speed. Three felt
that on-line searching offered more depth but still preferred CD-ROM to print.
Summary of Librarian Interviews
- Of the four librarians interviewed (Appendix 2), two said that patrons'
questions were primarily navigational in nature. The other two felt that questions from
inexperienced users were both navigational and concerned with search strategies. Common user
problems reported by the librarians included discomfort with the technology, downloading
information to disk, choosing appropriate search items, and not understanding what search
options were available or how to use Boolean logic. The librarians felt that users generally
preferred CD-ROM to other resources, considered it more user-friendly, and were satisfied with
results obtained. One thought that patrons asked more questions about CD-ROM than print
indices because they are more confident about knowing how to use a print index correctly
(although this perception may not be true).
- To the questions about improvements to or standardization of the user interface, most of the
librarians responded that there was too much variation in the content of the databases for
standardization of the interface with regard to searching. However, standardization of basic
navigational functions such as scrolling, exiting from the databases, printing, or downloading was
suggested, as well as improved on-screen instructions.
- The librarians thought their influence on patrons' use of the CD-ROM products was
substantial. They felt obligated to inform patrons of the resources available on CD-ROM since
they might otherwise not be aware of their existence, unlike the OPAC (online public access
catalog) or common print resources, which users expect to find in a public library. One of the
library staff commented that if she directs patrons to a print resource, they will often ask if it is
available on computer. In fact, one patron said that he felt more comfortable using a computer
than a book.
- From the literature and personal observations in a public library setting, it is evident that CD-ROM databases are popular with end users. As the public becomes more computer-literate, there
is less reluctance to the use of electronic resources in libraries. The fact that half of the patrons in
the survey at the local public library were first-time users indicates a willingness on the part of the
public to try this technology. Although this was a small sample of public library patrons using
different database products and may not be representative of the entire user population, the
responses agree with the results of the larger university studies previously mentioned.
- The users of CD-ROM database products seem to be satisfied with the products and the
technology, but perhaps too easily satisfied. From previous studies and the present survey,
participants expressed satisfaction with their results from CD-ROM database searches. In the
study comparing searching by end users and intermediaries, the authors commented: "It is rather
disturbing that so many library users seem completely uncritical in their evaluation of CD-ROM.
Many express satisfaction even when they achieve very poor results" (Lancaster et al., 1994, p.
382). Similar sentiments were expressed in interviews with academic reference librarians (Tenopir
& Neufang, 1992b). In the BPO study Bane (1995), in reporting the tendency of students to limit
the scope of their research to what is available on CD, emphasized the responsibility of librarians
to lead students to the most appropriate resources.
- While there are many variables involved in successful searching with CD-ROM databases, one
of the most relevant factors is the software's user interface. Jacsó defines the user interface as
"that part of the CD-ROM software through which users give their instructions to the system and
the system displays results, messages, and explanations"(Jacsó, 1992, p. 9). Interfaces may be of
varying types and styles, making use, to a greater or lesser degree, of menu bars, fill-in blanks,
pop-up windows, and functions keys for selecting options, entering search criteria and navigating
through the system. To make the software suitable for both novice and experienced searchers,
some products provide different levels of available features. A new or infrequent user can perform
a basic search without being confronted with unnecessary features, while someone wishing to
perform a complex search can select an advanced level to access the needed capabilities. The
selected level may affect output options as well as search options available to the user. On-screen
user help is provided in varying degrees by virtually all CD-ROM database software, frequently
by pressing a function key (usually F1). It may be context-sensitive or provide a table of contents
from which the user can choose a topic. Some products include hypertext links to specific terms
within a help topic, and some provide a tutorial to introduce the new user to the software.
- The variations in design of CD-ROM products can sometimes lead to problems for the end
user, especially when using multiple products with very different structures. To the extent that
CD-ROM software developers make their user interfaces more "Windows-like" in appearance,
the comfort level of users with these products will increase and many of the difficulties in
navigating through the databases may disappear. According to Jacsó, "navigation ease and ease of
use depend much on intuitivity. A system is intuitive when the action to be taken can be
contemplated without looking at a help file or the documentation" (Jacsó, 1992, pp. 21-22).
Greater consistency in the use of function keys and the terminology used to describe the various
functions in CD-ROM databases may also reduce navigational problems. Ironically, only the use
of the F1 function key to access HELP seems to be standardized among all databases. Perhaps the
developers feel that if the user can get to the HELP screen, all of the other functions can then be
explained. (This is equivalent to a vendor providing only a phone number for technical support
instead of documentation describing how a product should work.) Anyone who has used various
DOS-based applications with their myriad of command-driven interfaces can appreciate the
consistency of the interface in Macintosh and, more recently, Windows applications, where basic
functions are always found on the same menu regardless of the application. Yet standardization of
basic functions and format does not preclude software developers from creating unique products.
- The inclusion of abstracts and full-text in many CD-ROM database products has been well
received by users, as previous studies and library observations have shown. The ability to read an
abstract or article immediately after a search without having to go elsewhere in the library or use
ILL to retrieve it, can represent a noticeable savings of time by the user and less involvement of
the library staff. The additional time required at the workstation when using such products can be
further reduced by the ability to download the search results to floppy disk.
- In addition to the features of the software itself, factors such as workstation availability and
location, adequacy and condition of the hardware, and currency of the databases may affect the
ability of the end user to conduct a successful search. Even the attitudes of librarians can be
important, both by making patrons aware of the CD-ROM products and by encouraging or
discouraging their use. Lancaster et al. caution librarians against giving users the idea that CD-ROM products will meet all their needs with very little training. "To improve the results achieved
by library users requires adequate user instruction in some form (a simple manual, personal or
classroom instruction, or computer-aided instruction) or, alternatively, the use of effective search
interfaces" (Lancaster et al., 1994, p. 383).
- The availability of formal or informal training by librarians and written documentation for the
products could also influence the successful use of a product. Although it may be possible to
determine how to perform each function by carefully reading the on-screen messages, function
key labels, and the user help screens, they can be confusing to some users, and even in a library,
many people have an aversion to printed manuals or instruction sheets. (They also tend to
disappear.) As this author's observations indicated, the need for librarian assistance is greatest
among first-time users of a product. This is confirmed by Bane (1995), who reported that the
majority of new users received informal instruction by the library staff.
- The patron interviews at the public library confirm previous reports that the advanced search
features of the CD-ROM products are seldom used. Although many of the CD-ROM products
contain advanced search features or multiple user levels, few of the patrons interviewed used
these features. Others have also found that students tend to perform free-text searches without
developing a good search strategy (Schultz & Salomon, 1990). The predominant use of basic
functions may be due to lack of knowledge of more sophisticated search capabilities. Comments
from academic librarians suggest that the need for better bibliographic instruction for users is
widely recognized, although lack of adequate computer training facilities may hinder
implementation or success (Tenopir & Neufang, 1992b). While the results of the Arizona State
study indicated that prior classroom instruction had little effect on search strategy, this same study
noted that a number of students sought help, either within the software or from library staff, with
finding alternate search terms or hints on search formats. Considering these factors, products
should be designed to improve indexing rather than create more elaborate search engines
- CD-ROM technology seems to be increasingly popular among library users. While both
previous studies and recent interviews suggest that most end users are not sophisticated searchers,
their acceptance of the CD-ROM technology indicates that they are willing to learn. With initial
training users may become less reliant on library staff, at least for routine database operations.
Improvements in the user-friendliness of software interfaces and standardization of navigational
functions should make CD-ROM databases easier to use and allow users to concentrate on
developing good search strategies rather than such mundane activities as how to print.
- As the expertise of users increases, so do the expectations. With more databases containing
abstracts and full text becoming available, user demand for immediate access to documents will
grow. The availability and preference for the electronic version of documents will have an effect
on print subscriptions and inter-library loan. It is important that CD-ROM database developers
and libraries keep abreast of the changing attitudes and use of CD-ROM by patrons in order to
offer the services which will meet both present and future user information needs.
Anderson, J. (1995). Have users changed their style? A survey of CD-ROM vs. OPAC
product usage. RQ, 34(Spring), 362-368.
Bane, A. F. (1995). Business Periodicals Ondisc: How full-text availability affects the library.
Computers in Libraries, (May), 54-56.
Jacsó, P. (1992). CD-ROM software, dataware, and hardware: Evaluation, selection,
and installation. Englewood, CO: Libraries Unlimited, Inc.
Lancaster, F. W.; Elzy, C. et al. (1994). Searching databases on CD-ROM: Comparison of the
results of end-user searching with results from two modes of searching by skilled intermediaries.
RQ, 33(Spring), 370-386.
Schultz, K., & Salomon, K. (1990). End users respond to CD-ROM. Library
Journal, (February 1), 56-57.
Tenopir, C., & Neufang, R. (1992a). Electronic reference options: How they stack up in
research libraries. Online, 16(March), 22-28.
Tenopir, C., & Neufang, R. (1992b). The Impact of Electronic Reference on Reference
Librarians. Online, 16(May), 54-60.
Adkins, S. L. (1994). CD-ROM: A review of the 1993 literature. Computers in
Libraries, (September), 43-55.
Almquist, A. J. (1994). Toward the ideal CD-ROM application, Or, 'Vendors, Why Do You
Vex Us So?'. Computers in Libraries, (January), 54-61.
Quint, B. (1993). Follow the leader. Wilson Library Bulletin, 67(May), 82-85,126.
Richards, T. (1995). A comparative evaluation of four leading CD-ROM retrieval software
packages. Computers in Libraries, (April), 70-75.
Stewart, L.; Chang, K. S.; & Coons, B. (Eds.). (1990). Public access CD-ROMs
in libraries: Case studies. Westport, CT: Meckler Corporation.
Sylvia, M., & Lesher, M. (1994). Making hard choices: Canceling print indexes.
Online, (January), 59-64.
Tenopir, C. (1995). Integrating Electronic Reference. Library Journal, 120(April
Tenopir, C. (1995). Quality in distribution channels. Library Journal,
119(February 1), 33-34.
Appendix 1 - Questions to Patrons
1. What CD-ROM database product(s) did you use today? Was this the first time?
2. Did you find the database(s) easy to use?
3. Was the product's on-screen help useful to you? How?
4. Did you require the assistance of a librarian in order to use the database or perform a search?
5. Do you feel that your searches were successful? Did you use the advanced search capabilities
of the product(s)?
6. What feature(s) of this CD-ROM software do you find most helpful?
7. What improvements would you like to see that would make the product(s) more user-friendly?
8. If you use multiple CD-ROM database products, do you think they should have a standard user
interface or should the user interface be product-specific?
9. Do you prefer CD-ROM based searching to print indexes or on-line searching? Why or why
Appendix 2 - Questions to Librarians
1. Are user questions regarding CD-ROM database products primarily navigational in nature or
concerned with search strategies?
2. What seem to be the most common problems encountered by users?
3. How do CD-ROM products compare with other materials with regard to frequency of user
questions and satisfaction with results?
4. How could the user interface to these products be improved?
5. Do you favor a standard user interface to all CD-ROM products, or should the user interface
be product-specific? Why?
6. To what extent do you influence the use of CD-ROM database products by patrons?