Saturday, October 13, 2018

Librarianship and Computers, a Short History. By Antonio SolisGomez

In the early part of 1980 computers were beginning to appear in libraries. The Tucson Public’s Main Library had a special unit that was funded by the state to answer difficult reference question that were sent there by smaller libraries without the resources to answer the questions themselves. This special unit had access to fee based electronic databases that were being marketed by a company named Dialog. It was the earliest version of online information and required a small unit with a keyboard, a built in printer and two foam cups to attach a rotary telephone. It was called a TTY.

I was working at a smaller branch and obtained permission from Administration to let me train on this new technology with Dave Kendal the librarian working the unit. Dialog provided a couple of hundred databases in the physical sciences, literature and in the social sciences.

Today, a person can use ordinary language and obtain information on Google but at that time, accessing these databases required using key words separated by and, or, not. It was called Boolean Logic. There were some enhancements that could be applied such as a key word within so many words of another key word and one could also search descriptors that were applied at the time the information was entered into the database. Additionally each of the 200 plus databases had peculiarities that a searcher had to know in order to obtain the best results possible. In many ways searching in this old way was infinitely more precise and eliminated false “hits” but not at all user friendly and thus not suitable for the general public as is Google.

Also appearing in the early 1980’s were the databases provided by Nexis and Lexis, the former a full text database of newspaper articles and the later a database of case law, now an indispensable resource for the law profession.
Circulation person operating machine that photographed the library user & book card

I transferred to the Tucson Public’s Main library in 1981 and by then the regular Main Library staff had obtained access to the aforementioned databases and they soon became an essential tool for answering the public’s information queries.

The computerized circulation system of the Tucson Public Library system was operational circa 1983-4. Heretofore books were checked out to the public by using a machine that photographed a person’s library card with the card that provided book’s title and author and its assigned Dewey Decimal number. The book’s card was then placed in a file by due date. The film had to be reviewed periodically to identify individuals who had not returned an item and the person contacted by mail. Reserving a book for someone was a time consuming process requiring clerks to check all returned books, against a hand written note indicating that someone was waiting for it.

The new computerized circulation system was to make everyone’s work much more efficient but it required a gigantic initial effort of digitizing every book in the entire system and to assigned it a barcode. There were hundreds of thousands of books in the entire system but somehow the conversion was accomplished.

One day during the Christmas season one of our clerks was able to use the circulation system to send an electronic message to a branch library: Merry Christmas it said. For our library it was the first appearance of an email.

Behind the scene, in the library's workroom where books were catalogued, big changes were also taking place. Cataloguing a book, that is deciding what its subject was and then assigning it a dewey decimal number, took an inordinate amount of time until an outfit called OCLC began providing a cataloguing service. OCLC revolutionized this aspect of libraianship as the great majority of a library's books could be catalogued in this manner, leaving only a few unique books that had to be catalogued by a the library staff.  

In 1988 I accepted a job offer in Santa Barbara as the Director of the Black Gold Information Center that answered reference questions from seven member libraries of Black Gold: Santa Paula, San Luis Obispo, Ventura, Lompoc, Santa Maria, Paso Robles and Santa Barbara. My office was at the Santa Barbara Main Library and I had another office on the campus of the University of California at Santa Barbara (UCSB).
An Electronic Bulletin Board

We answered incoming reference questions with the book collection of the Santa Barbara Public Library and also UCSB’s. We also answered questions with the aforementioned electronic databases and tried utilizing the emerging Electronic Bulletin Boards, but with little success.

In 1993, I was offered a position by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation in Battle Creek Michigan. I accepted and began setting up the Foundation’s first library. My job was to provide for the information needs of the foundation staff, which entailed a host of services.

Two of those services entailed working with the new kid on the block, namely the Internet. Although computers with monitors were being purchased by the general public since the early 1980’s, as previously mentioned accessing electronic databases was accomplished via a TTY, a unit that originally functioned without a screen, the search results visible as a hardcopy print.

About the time that I started at the Foundation, web browsers were made available to the general public. The first one called Mosaic and then another called Netscape, made possible the display of information on a screen, leading to the creation of web sites. It also made possible the display of retrieved information from the Dialog’s electronic databases and from Nexis.

The Kellogg Foundation had a Technology Department that was responsible for operating and maintaining an internal computer network. Thus every staff person had access to this internal network and to other external networks via email which was quickly becoming a necessity for every aspect of economic and social life.

In 1994 I began purchasing all of the Foundation’s books from the brand new online bookstore named Amazon, which at that time was solely dedicated to the sale of books.
author in his office/library

Another aspect of my job was to help train staff in the use of the Internet to retrieve information.

In 1995 I was given the opportunity to work as a program officer in reviewing proposals, awarding grants and monitoring Non Profit Organizations that had received a grant.

One of the Foundation’s concerns was that the emerging Internet was not going to be available to everyone, in particular the urban and rural poor and minorities. They called it the digital divide.

Public Libraries which had been at society’s forefront in providing information was of particular concern as there was the fear that they would be unable to transition to the digital age, in particular because of the existing book culture that cast aspersions at digital information.
Percent of U.S. Households Using the Internet by Race/Origin

Gail McClure who was the Director of the Communications Department responsible for the library, designed several programs to address both the Digital Divide and Public Libraries and the Foundation awarded grants totaling several millions of dollars. Among the grants awarded was a multimillion dollar grant to the University of Michigan to convert their Library School to a multidisciplinary School of Information Science, another multimillion dollar grant to the Library of Congress to digitize some of their collection, another multimillion dollar grant to the New York Public Library to bolster their Business Collection and a few million to the primary national organization for public libraries the American Library Association, to further the understanding of Librarians regarding digital information.

We can easily see that that today public libraries made the transition and that computers and databases compatibly co-exist with books and that public libraries have made possible access to computers by the general public that lacks no and/or limited access from home. There were many stake holders in making this transition possible, foundations like the W.K. Kellogg were but one of several others as were private corporations like Microsoft and of course the government at all levels.

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