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CD-ROM Librarian

What is the "CD-ROM Librarian"?

by Norman Desmarais

This column carries the banner "The CD-ROM Librarian"; but who are these CD-ROM librarians and what do they do? While around ninety percent of libraries have CD-ROM tools available for patron use, few, if any, have anybody in a position designated as CD-ROM librarian. That's not to say that the CDs take care of themselves. No, there's somebody appointed to oversee their management; but that person does not carry the title of CD-ROM librarian most likely because it is considered too narrow and restrictive. Also, the person, who administers the CD-ROMs, and whom we shall refer to as the CD-ROM librarian, does not devote all of his or her time to working with the CDs, although it may sometimes feel that way.

The large majority of librarians do not specialize by the format of the information they work with. Although the term "librarian" implies work with the book format, few of us limit our information tools to the book. Modern information needs require work with all kinds of formats: sound recordings (disks of various types, reel-to-reel tape, cassettes, and other formats), film, slides, photos, electronic files, and databases. Some of us may have specialized in a particular format because of the size or the particular requirements of a collection or because of the complexities of administering it. Maybe when CD-ROM collections get so large and unwieldy as to require the attention of a full-time person, we shall begin to see the creation of CD-ROM librarian positions, just as we have slide librarians and audio-visual librarians.


The CD-ROM librarian usually has another function and has assumed the administration of the CD collection in addition to his or her other duties. In some cases, the acquisitions librarian or the periodicals or serials librarian assumes the responsibility because he or she must negotiate license agreements and acquire the materials. In many cases, the job may go to the person who demonstrates the most interest or proficiency with technology. In other cases, it may get assigned to somebody who has no interest in technology (as a sort of punishment?) but who oversees another area, such as government documents, to which the addition of CD-ROM duties might appear as a logical extension.

In many cases, the administration of the CD-ROM collections falls under the purview of the public services librarians who become most familiar with the information needs of the patrons and how to respond to them. They are also the ones who usually perform online searches for patrons; so CD-ROM appears as an extension of their responsibilities because it is logically related to online searching.

External Management

Sometimes the CD-ROM librarian is not even a librarian. On some academic campuses, the administration of matters related to computers has transferred from the library to the campus computer center or systems department. In this scenario, a librarian usually makes the selection decision for materials and indicates how a product is intended to be used. The computer center staff is then responsible for making sure that it works as intended and is reliable. The person who takes care of the CDs may often be a technician or a computer professional, such as a Computer Systems Coordinator. His or her responsibilities generally focus on technical matters, such as software and hardware installation, managing CD-ROM updates, making sure that everything works as intended, fine-tuning the system, and troubleshooting any problems.

The head of the computer center, systems department, or the chief information officer deals with policy issues and management issues like budgets and serves as a liasion with other department heads to assess needs and coordinate information flow. This arrangement sometimes makes for uneasy relationships between the librarians and the computer services personnel. While the latter may focus on hardware and the former on software and user education, there can be quite a bit of overlap with conflicts resulting.

Many librarians find it difficult to communicate with computer professionals either because they don't know the jargon or they don't understand the implications of particular decisions or they dislike relinquishing responsibilities they consider part of their domain. Computer services personnel, on the other hand, often don't understand the particular needs of the librarians and may not provide satisfactory responses quickly enough.

Information Technology Department

Larger libraries are more apt to have a unit specifically devoted to working with electronic databases, both local and remote. Such a unit might include technical expertise that would minimize or eliminate the need to rely on support from an agency outside the library.

One librarian we spoke with indicated that his library created a new position, Information Technology Librarian, to serve as a bridge between the highly technical staff and the general library staff. This person takes the tools that the library provides to its users and consults with the librarians to help them make full use of the power and capabilities of the programs. This person has also developed a full scale user training program including classroom sessions, video tapes (produced in-house), and a small circulating library of books.

By automating certain areas, the library has increased flexibility in staffing -- an important factor at a time when new positions often get frozen. The library finds that the unit pays for itself in terms of lower costs, increased flexibility, and the impetus toward realizing the "virtual library".

Libraries that include computer professionals among their staff enjoy a great advantage. These technically proficient staff have a stake in the success of the library's mission and may devote more attention to making things work properly. Sometimes the technical personnel recognize the special demands that libraries place on them and decide to pursue a library degree to gain a better understanding. In other cases, the departmental administrators may encourage the computer professionals to work toward becoming hybrid library professionals by pursuing an ALA accredited MIS (Master of Information Science) degree.

Those libraries with CD-ROM networks and/or remote access will be more apt to rely on the services of the computer center or to have in-house expertise, thereby requiring greater cooperation between the two units. The complexities of setting up and running a local area network introduce a whole new set of problems in addition to those presented by the CD-ROMs themselves. Often, getting the CDs to work on a network in a public service environment involves menu programs and drive mapping. In some cases, it can prove very difficult or impossible to get all the necessary components to work together satisfactorily.

Many software providers now offer a graphical user interface which makes navigating the products easier; but it also makes network administration more difficult because it leaves too many opportunities for users to access the operating system and modify or destroy essential files and programs. The new versions of Windows currently in development should eliminate some of these concerns.

As the CD-ROM collections continue to build over the years, CD-ROM librarians will need to budget for additional hardware to make the products available. We'll soon find more jukeboxes and additional optical servers in libraries. In other cases, librarians may use the CD-ROM as a distribution medium to mount the databases on the library's mini- or mainframe computer.

Some CD-ROM librarians are beginning to consider providing mount-on-demand access to CD-ROM resources. This resembles the service provided by computer centers in the early days of computing when remote users submitted a job and asked the operator to mount a tape for them. In the case of CDs, the operator will load a CD-ROM disc rather than checking it out to someone. Such an approach presents some formidable technical and intellectual problems to overcome to become practical.


While we refer to the CD-ROM librarian, this person is more apt to be, or become, an electronic information librarian, providing access to information in various electronic formats regardless of their location. Some people have used the term "cybrarian" to indicate the person who administers Internet resources and navigates among them so users can have easy access to all library resources -- regardless of type or location. Maybe today's CD-ROM librarian will become tomorrow's "cybrarian" as electronic information services coalesce into a separate department or a subset of the public services unit.