Computers: Search for the right article: Andrew Brown browses through a new on-line magazine database

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ONE OF THE first great disappointments to strike 'visitors' to the Internet is the predominance of catalogues over books. There is hardly a major academic library in the world whose catalogue cannot now be searched from any computer equipped with a modem and linked to the worldwide computer information network. Getting the substance from these catalogues is much more difficult.

However, Blackwell's, the Oxford bookseller, is now marketing under the name Uncover 5 million articles from 14,000 magazines to anyone with an Internet connection and a credit card. They are ordered by E-mail and delivered by fax.

The magazines range from the New Yorker, Country Life and the Spectator to the furthest reaches of technical esoterica. Almost every magazine available in university libraries in Colorado, or among six large Irish libraries, the University of California in Los Angeles and the National Library of Australia is represented. The only exclusions are magazines wholly devoted to current affairs or those which have too many pictures.

The theory is simple. You connect over the Internet to database. carl. org, - or, if you have more money than sense, you can dial direct with a modem to Denver, Colorado - you then work your way through a series of clear and quick menus until you have identified the author or article of your choice. There are, for instance, 12 Amises, of whom Martin has eight articles listed and Sir Kingsley, two. The others no one has ever heard of.

Each article costs about dollars 15 ( pounds 10) to retrieve: the cost is made up of a fixed fee to Uncover; a faxing fee (dollars 3 an article to the UK); and a variable amount which goes to the publisher. You pay by filling in the details of an on-screen form - there are no hidden charges.

Uncover boasts that most articles will be faxed within 24 hours and some within an hour. But it can take considerably longer if you order at weekends. Two articles I ordered from Field and Stream on Sunday afternoon were not delivered until the small hours of Tuesday morning.

Once the request has been made, it is circulated to all the libraries. If the article has not been ordered before, it is found by a human being, scanned in at the site and the scanned image sent electronically to Denver. From there it is faxed automatically to the person who ordered it.

Where publishers are willing, scanned articles are also stored on optical disks in Denver so they can be sent as soon as they are ordered - a request for an article from the Christmas issue of Science produced it within the hour.

By the end of this year, Blackwells says, it will have 25,000 magazines indexed on the system. Though reasonably costly, Uncover is cheaper than some of the alternatives, such as the FT Profile database of British newspaper articles.

Though electronic copies of the articles would be more useful to some people than faxes, they would bring with them considerable risks to the copyright holders since digital copies can be copied an infinite number of times. The faxes I have received have been perfectly legible, but not of a quality which would lend themselves to scanning with the OCR software currently available.

The equipment needed to access the system from home is becoming cheaper all the time. Reliable, legal and fast fax modems now cost only pounds 200 to pounds 250. Since the database was opened to the general public in September last year, about 40,000 people around the world have used it. For all the niggles, Uncover is a remarkably imaginative and useful project.

Blackwell: tel 0865 261362; fax 0865 791438; Internet: uncover@blackwell. co. uk.

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