James H. Sweetland, North American Convenor

Last month, a number of major Web sites were subjected to a “Denial of Service” attack. In a DOS, a number of computers are set up to send a very large number of messages, all at the same time, to a site’s server, thus overwhelming the server’s ability to respond to anyone. While there is some discussion as to whether a DOS is really a computer “hack”, and whether those responsible should be called “hackers” (general consensus among those in the know is that they are not, the primary point of interest here is that major commercial sites, including the search engine/directory/portal YAHOO, are very vulnerable, even if their actual systems are not compromised).

Most of the discussion of the implications of these incidents has been in the context of e-commerce, however there is another area where such vulnerability should be considered the full text environment. A growing number of libraries around the world, certainly in the U. S., are moving toward the purchase of electronic text, and particularly such text on the World Wide Web. Over much of the Nineties, many libraries saw the attractiveness of electronic versions of journals and reference books, and many of them invested in CD-ROM and tape-loaded versions of such things. In many ways, such a purchase, or lease (the more common approach) is not much different from the acquisition of paper products. Notably, while the subscription is in force, the library has access, within its physical facility, to the material paid for. The costs and staffing problems of maintaining a large number of large databases, plus the attractions of (at least theoretical) instantaneous updates, have led many libraries to drop the former, and subscribe to the same sources on the Web. At the same time, a rapidly growing number of publishers have been mounting some or all of the text of their journals (and some books) on their own web sites. However, there are a number of disadvantages, some of which have been discussed quite frequently, but there is one in particular which the DOS attacks have made clear - the possibility that Web connections will be cut or greatly reduced. Not only can technical problems eliminate access to the library’s collection, but too much traffic can do the same. Now, it is not that long ago that America Online (AOL) ran into serious trouble due to too much success, and actually nearly shut down for a time.

Wholly aside from deliberate over-heavy traffic, at what point will any given server become too slow? It has already happened to this writer several times for example, attempts to use a standard reference tool such as Books In Print were futile when the response time ran into several minutes per screen. Remember, not only is there the issue of the traffic into a Web server, there is also the traffic on the local servers at your library. If a substantial part of your collection is replaced by Web access, how often will attempts to get to this collection, added to use of other databases and your OPAC, mean loss of access to all that material?

This is not to deny the attractions of either electronic sources in general, nor of Web sources in particular, but rather to raise the question if users cannot get to material, is it fair to say, because it’s on the Web, there’s nothing we can do?