Information Access Company’s (IAC) InfoTrac provided access to over 900 magazines ranging from business to general interest through various databases stored on laserdiscs. One 12-inch laserdisc could hold bibliographic information about the current year’s issues as well as a backfile of 3 years. Separate backfile discs were sold to provide bibliographic access to the backfiles of those publications from 1980 on.
IAC offered subscriptions and bundled purchasing of all the equipment needed to support InfoTrac searching: IBM microcomputer(s) workstation terminals, Hewlett Packard inkjet printers, a Pioneer player for the laserdisc, and a new laserdisc each month with the latest updates to the databases (Tenopir 168). IAC also devised one of the first options for full-text searching. Bibliographic records on each laserdisc would be labeled with a specific call number that related to a frame on a microfilm roll. IAC sold towers of the microfilm rolls with their laserdisc InfoTrac access so a user could locate the bibliographic information for a title, and then located the physical microfilm to view the full text of the resource. The IAC sold a proprietary microfilm viewer that allowed users to insert the standard cartridge and find their document immediately (Nichols 11). Some early librarian users lamented the fact that because InfoTrac relied on laserdisc technology instead of CD-ROM because there were no standards for videodiscs and their software, meaning libraries would be beholden to their vendors of videodiscs for content and media to process that content. (Arsdale 514)
However, InfoTrac’s records did not reflect the actual materials held in the library, and because of limited access to the terminals (in 1986, a bundled package with two workstations cost $14,000 or the equivalent of $32,879 in 2019) there were often lines and a searcher might have to wait for up to half an hour (Tenopir 169) to start their search. The searcher would use the Library of Congress Subject Heading (LSCH) Thesaurus (which can be thought of us a “key”) to search by topic. Search terms could not be combined, so it was helpful to have the expertise of a librarian to help the searcher navigate the subheadings and classifications of the LCSH. IAC eventually started selling packages that included a modem and set up for the workstations to be connected to the early internet and access online databases.
Early reviews of InfoTrac indicate the start of a new technological identity crisis in librarianship, with one negative reviewer noting that, “The popularity of InfoTrac is the reason given most frequently by other libraries for subscribing. User enthusiasm was also evident during trial use. Does a library provide a service primarily because it is popular? As one of our reference librarians quipped, ‘The fact that students would like us to write their term papers is no reason to provide the service.’” (Arsdale 515)
Kent, Stephens. 1986. "InfoTrac: Laserdisc Technology Enters Mainstream." American Libraries 17 (4): 252.
Nichols, Margaret Irby. 1994. Handbook of References Sources and Services for Small and Medium-Sized Libraries. 2nd ed. ed. Austin, TX: Texas State Library.
Tenopir, Carol. 1986. "InfoTrac: a laser disc system." Library Journal 111 (14): 168-169. http://proxy.library.nyu.edu/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=lls&AN=502739319&site=eds-live
Photograph 1: Personal photo from Wikicommons user Benjfrank
Photograph 2: Article illustration from an American Libraries article from 1988 discussing the merits of InfoTrac versus a contemporary competitor, Wilsondisc.
Photograph 3: Personal photograph of Wikicommons user Benjfrank of a roll of InfoTrac microfilm.