Vol. VIII, No. 3

November, 1995

The Avery Index on Disc - A Review

by H. Eiteljorg, II

The Avery Index on Disc, produced by the Avery Architectural and Fine Arts Library of Columbia University and the Getty Art History Information Program. G.K. Hall & Co., ISBN No.: 0-783-82114-X; requires DOS, $995, $495 per year for updates

The Avery Index to Architectural Periodicals is a magnificent source of information on periodical literature about architectural history, planning, preservation, interior design, and landscape architecture, with an emphasis on the post-antique period. The works included cover an enormous range; approximately 800 periodicals (from 40 countries, with about twenty percent coming from the U.S.) are searched each year, with about 15,000 new entries created every year. By 1993 there were more than 135,000 articles included in the Index. The Index covers materials from 1977, and the information may be searched on-line from many libraries through the Eureka system. The Avery Index on Disc is a new version of this resource that includes the references from the Index for the years up to 1993 on a CD - plus searching mechanisms, options for saving information from searches, and printout possibilities.

Because the CD, like any publication, must go to press at some point in time, it does not include data added to the Index after the publication date - in this case, 1993. More recent titles can be found in the on-line version which is updated daily. The fact that the CD must be fixed at some moment in time and then used until it can be updated may be its biggest drawback (not including its price). Since it is possible to use the Index in many libraries and to obtain more current information there, the CD is, comparatively speaking, limited. On the other hand, the CD can sit on your desk, ready for use at any moment, and your desk can be anywhere in the world, whether within sight of a good library or very distant from one. Furthermore, I found using the search routines on the CD to be easier and more efficient. The response also seemed quicker, although speed of the on-line version will depend on the network traffic at the time of use. (Searching on-line also requires more care if the terminal, like the one I used, does not permit backspacing.)

In either the on-line or the CD version, the information is initially brought to screen in abbreviated form, with only the title, information about illustrations, and the journal (with all appropriate bibliographic information) shown. Up to four citations can appear on a single DOS screen with that level of detail. Requesting full information requires only a single keystroke, and brings to the screen these additional items: identification number, author(s), language, ISSN number, note(s), subject(s), Avery call number, and, in the case of book reviews, the name of the book reviewed. With that extra information shown, only one citation is placed on the screen. (It is possible to modify the user interface, according to the brochure supplied with The Avery Index on Disc, but that was a feature I did not try to use.)

The results of any search can be printed or saved on disk, and it is possible to order a photocopy of any article included in the Index. Articles can be ordered from the Avery Architecture and Fine Arts Library of Columbia University through interlibrary loan.

Whether on CD or on-line, the works are indexed according to author, title, and subject. In addition, one may search for key words in the subjects or titles, and it is possible to use partial words for searching. Searches with information about journal names, illustrations, Avery call numbers, country (of the periodical), language, and system identification numbers are also possible. The more useful search routines, however, are those involving subjects, titles, and authors.

Author indices must be searched with precise spellings - or the usual indicators of doubt, a questions mark to indicate one letter missing and an asterisk to indicate truncation, i.e., that any characters may follow. (The on-line version uses a question mark to truncate and offers no individual letter replacement.) Unfortunately, the names of authors are taken to include last name, comma, and first name plus initial(s) but no period after the final initial. As a result, the system will treat as three separate people Wilhelmina F. Jashemski, W. F. Jashemski, and Wilhelmina Mary Feemster Jashemski (not to mention Wilhelmina F. Jashemaki, a typographic error that made it through the check routines and onto the CD). Unfortunately, a search for Jashemski, Wilhelmina will find none of them, though searching for Jashemski, Wilhelmina F (without the period) will find some of the appropriate references. To get around this, one may search for Jashemski, W*, and the system will find all entries for authors with the last name Jashemski and a first name beginning with W. This is not a problem, but it requires some getting used to.

Searches for subjects are complicated by the method of assigning subjects used by the Index (discussed below), and searches for titles can be difficult because of the need for absolute precision, though truncating can ease that problem. Searches for key words from subjects or titles, however, are very powerful, and there is no need to truncate in order to find the information being sought. Key word searches permit the user to look for subjects of interest in the broadest possible ways.

Not only are the key word searches very powerful, but users can search with any number of criteria at the same moment, using the Boolean operators (and, or, and not), and one can use old searches to construct newer, more limited ones. It is also possible to search for a word without specifying the context; so a search for Wright could find works about and by Frank Lloyd Wright.

The indices are available to provide the user with lists of words that will be found, and the user may automatically construct a search from an index. For instance, one may use the subject keyword list to see that Pompeii and forum are both included, then construct a search for each from the index, and then search for both together - that is, for works having both Pompeii and forum as keywords in their descriptions. (The on-line version does not include indices for the key words, either for title or for subject.)

In constructing these searches, one must be careful to distinguish between subjects and subject keywords, a distinction I ignored for a time. Subjects are hierarchical descriptions of the subject matter, and a search must include all parts of the hierarchy down to the level that is important for the individual search. An example is necessary here.

The subjects assigned to John J. Dobbins' article, "Problems of Chronology, Decoration, and Urban Design in the Forum at Pompeii," were:


City planning--Roman--Italy--Pompeii

Urban design--Roman--Italy--Pompeii

Cities and towns--Ruined, extinct, etc.--Italy--Pompeii

A search for Pompeii or Pompeii* as a subject will not yield this article, because Pompeii is a sub-topic, not a principal one. A search for forum will not work either - both because forum is plural in the description for some reason and because forum is not the complete subject. A search for forum* will include this reference, as will a search for City planning--Roman*.

Given the requirements of the search process and the difficulties of predicting how subjects will be assigned, I recommend using key word searches for subjects.

It would be easy to overlook the power of the indices. They make searching more efficient and more reliable, by far, and using them to construct the search commands makes it much easier for the user to find relevant information without spending time learning the search syntax. The on-line version includes only the subject, author, and title indices, not the key word indices; so the CD version, with its access to key word indices as well as subject, author, and title indices, provided greater speed and ease of use.

There are some inevitable data accuracy problems with the Index, and they surface in either the on-line or the CD version. I found only a few such problems, but any resource like this depends for its usefulness on the completeness and accuracy of the data. (I did not see any reference to mechanisms for notifying the publisher or Avery personnel about errors.)

Misspelled names and other typographic errors can lead to difficulties - or to confusion and uncertainty. One typographic error in the authors section has been mentioned. There are also inconsistencies in the use of dashes to separate members of subject hierarchies, and such seemingly inconsequential problems can cause serious difficulties with searches.

The system runs under DOS, not Windows, so the computer interface is not up to contemporary standards, but I wonder if that is important for a scholars' tool. There are no provisions for a mouse or for cut-and-paste operations that might speed things up. But, again, does that really matter? Probably not, although the inability to move back and forth between The Avery Index on Disc and another program such as a word processor, is bothersome. One should be able to do that, even with a DOS program, since it should be possible to run a DOS program as a Windows task, but the Index brought the system down every time I tried to do that. It also caused a crash on occasion under plain DOS, without Windows. (The Index software ran without problems as a DOS task under Windows NT.)

For this tool, the important matters are the quality of the data, the flexibility of the search processes, and the stability of the system. The search processes are excellent, the data problems I found trivial in such an enormous data set. The stability of the system is another matter; it ought to run under Windows, even if only as a DOS task. In general, the tool is an excellent one, with better search routines, quicker response, and more flexibility than the on-line version. If it were less pricey and more stable, there would be no doubt at all about its desirability.

For an index of other CD and Web site reviews available on the Web pages of the CSA Newsletter, see the review index.

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