Information Innovations

ALA Archives Old Computer
Patricia Mosley, assistant reference librarian, helping a patron with computer managed video instruction at the Murray-Green Library of Roosevelt University in Chicago (1984). Image and caption from ALA Archives.

This column presents links and essays about the development of technologies, tools, and systems that have revolutionized libraries and information management.  It especially seeks to highlight the broader cultural implications of these developments.  Please consider writing a post about the history of a technological application or change in cataloging at your library.


Note (April 2, 2020): Competing Classifications at the Library of Indiana University, 1898-1918

By Dr. Catherine J. Minter

Author Bio: Dr. Catherine J. Minter is an arts and humanities librarian at Indiana University Bloomington. She is the author of several published articles on library and information history. She is particularly interested in cross-cultural connections between Western European and North American librarianship in the nineteenth century.

Intro from the Editor: Here is an exceptional essay about a little known story in the annals of libraries. It deals with the clash of classifications in American librarianship that played out at the Indiana University Libraries.   The article draws from a strong base of primary sources, including German-language materials and an intriguing unpublished manuscript by an Indiana University librarian, Ida Wolf, entitled Library of Congress Classification; A Criticism. 1937.  Many thanks to Dr. Minter for illuminating a fascinating chapter in her library’s history–which is also a case study of an issue at the very heart of information science history!  Enjoy her full essay here.

Note (January 17, 2019): Historicizing Digital Humanities and its Changing Role in Knowledge Forms 

Author Bio: Lauren Rossi is currently completing the Master of Information program at Rutgers University with a concentration in library and information science. Along with this, she works at both an academic and public library. Lauren hopes to continue to work with the public and students in a library setting and assist with research and literary needs.

Intro from the Editor:  Digital humanities (DH) is a new field in libraries–but thanks to enterprising work by Ms. Rossi we already have a historical treatment of the subject.  In this disciplined, formal analysis, she presents a theoretical overview of DH based on some of its seminal works, and she then uses structured keyword searches and content analysis to trace the themes of this new field.  Her findings point to the need for more research on the behind-the-scenes work that goes into a digital project as well as the need to capture content and experiences for a wider diversity of world populations.  Thank you, Ms. Rossi, for taking a historical lens to the surging field of DH!   Check out her excellent paper here: History of Digital Humanities.

Note (September 1, 2017): The Evolution of Card Catalogs

By Chloe Waryan, University of Iowa

Author Bio: Chloe Waryan is a MLIS candidate at the University of Iowa. She entered into the library field by way of urban public libraries, as a patron, a volunteer, and eventually an employee. Chloe’s professional interests include access, preservation, and outreach.

Introduction from the Editor: I am pleased to publish this essay about the card catalog, one of my favorite historic library technologies.  Ms. Waryan highlights the various phases of the catalog’s development–hand-written card catalogs, to typewritten ones, to today’s electronic systems–and binds the entire story together with the theme of accessibility.  During the catalog’s metamorphosis from hand-written to printed slips, she discusses how librarians debated in their journals about which typewriter was the most efficient for producing cards. In the parts of the story about the computer revolution, I found it most interesting to learn that some libraries who admired the accessibility of the OPAC but wanted to retain the “old school charm” of the physical catalog fused them together by creating electronic catalogs that had actual images of the old cards. After covering the recent growth of discovery systems and mobile apps, her fitting conclusion is “though libraries in 1900 did not know what kind of future the latest technology would bring in 2017, they still shared the mission of accessibility. Regardless of era and technology, providing accessible and organized cataloging services to library users is the top priority of the public library.” Bravo, Ms. Waryan, for an excellent essay!  Read her full essay here: Evolution of_Card_Catalogs.

A Mash-Up of Innovations That Transformed Libraries

By Brett Spencer, Editor

I present below various free web sites about library innovations that I hope will spark interest, encourage the reader to delve more deeply, and write up a paper for LHRT News and Notes or another venue.  The history of library innovations offers infinite vistas for the researcher!

History of Information Retrieval (American Society for Indexing)

Reveals the ancient origins of Table of Contents, Alphabetization, Hierarchies of Information, and Indexes.  Wow, I have taken these for granted, but what would libraries be without these innovations?  The site notes that indexes go all the way back to ancient Roman days.  Librarians would attach tiny slips of paper to papyrus scrolls that featured the title of each scroll; patrons could then identify a needed scroll before pulling it from the shelves.

Children sitting at a table, looking through card catalog drawers.
“Allison School Library, Metropolitan School District of Washington Township, Indianapolis, Indiana. A Knapp School Libraries Project Demonstration School. Children learning to use the catalog as a means of finding books on their own.” Image and caption from ALA Archives.
I miss card catalogs, but this ARL report helps me see why card catalogs gave way to online catalogs.  In 1975 Richard D. Gennaro reported that the Yale University Library, if it continued to collect at the same rate, would have 200,000,000 volumes by 2040 and require 750,000 drawers for the cards–creating a catalog that would take up eight acres of library floor space! (p. 1)  A follow-up study by ARL a few years later, Freezing Card Catalogs, presented justifications, survey results, and the public impact from some of the first libraries to stop the production of cards and adopt alternative cataloging systems.  I see the advantages of an online catalog, but I still can’t help reminisce about those magical wooden drawers filled with cards that offered stepping stones through the world of reading.

The Photostat in Reference Work (By Charles Flowers McCombs of the New York Public Library, 1920)

The Roaring Twenties evokes images of flappers, prohibition, jazz music–and the first photocopiers in libraries.  This intriguing booklet, published in 1920, reports on the NYPL’s first photostat machine and predicts that it will revolutionize reference services.  Howard S. Leach, a Princeton librarian, also published an article the same year in Scientific American that further detailed the ways microfilming of sources helped historical researchers, pointing out that it was more convenient and avoided wear and tear to original primary sources.  His arguments for photocopying in the Twenties sound strikingly similar to the arguments for digitization of archival materials today.  Perhaps someone could write up an article fleshing out that idea?

The MARC Pilot Project (By Henriette D. Avram, 1968, Digitized by the Southwest Museum of Engineering, Communications and Computation)

Someone could do an analysis of this report that provided the foundation for the rise of computers in libraries.  Librarian of Congress L. Quincy Mumford explains the significance of the MARC project in the Forward: “The Library of Congress early recognized that the widespread application of computer technology to libraries could come about only if bibliographic data in machine-readable form could be distributed with precision and at reasonable cost.”
I love reading historical prophesies!  This article offers a prophecy that traces the broad contours of our present age of databases, ebooks, and video streaming services.  Buckley describes an idea for a “TeleRead” system that he heard from a friend to encourage reading at a time when print book reading appeared to be declining.  Similar to a giant encyclopedia, TeleRead would be funded by a tax on television sets.  Alternatively, users could select a text from a vending machine and pay for it with a special card.  Buckley notes that it would likely make its way into libraries: “it is a bracing idea, the notion that a student could go to the public library and read via TeleRead any book they wished to read, or any magazine.”
A fascinating page on the invention of bookmobiles, with lots of historic photos.  Additional sites on the bookmobile include  Biblioburro: The Donkey Library (Carlos Rendón Zipagauta, PBS).  This site touches on bookmobiles powered by donkeys, camels, and elephants!  It also points out that S.R. Ranganathan created a bookmobile consisting of a two-wheeled cart in India in the 1930s that played a key role in providing education to rural Indians.  Derek Attig, library historian and author of the web site BookMobility, helps contextualize the role of bookmobiles in American social history with his post Race & Reading on the Bookmobile.
This page offers a suite of surprising trivia from microfilm history–I didn’t realize that the French armies used carrier pigeons to transport microfilm across Prussian lines during the Franco-Prussian War!  Spy agencies also used microfilm as espionage tools during World War II (now that sounds like a fascinating research topic for someone).  Microfilm-philes will be glad to hear that companies plan to keep churning out more film indefinitely, despite the rise of the web.  In fact, according to this article in the Atlantic, there is renewed interest in micro-technologies as a medium for preserving copies of web sites for thousands of years.   If I’ve stirred your interest for more microfilm stories and predictions about its future utility, read The Strange History of Microfilm by Ernie Smith in Atlas Obscura.  Smith points out that “in a couple hundred years, when people are trying to write the history books about our culture, they’re probably going to run into a lot of 404 errors…but you know what they’ll be able to read crystal-clear?… Microfilm and microfiche.”  There are a multitude of library history papers just waiting to be written about microfilm.
A group of librarians sitting around a table with old bound newspapers. Windows in the background.
Librarians and archivists attend a Resources and Technical Services Division (RTSD) Institute on preservation at Yale University. Ann Swartzell of the RTSD/Reproduction of Library Materials Section, leads the workshop on preparing newspapers for microfilming. Published in American Libraries, June 1988, pg. 536. Image and caption from ALA Archives.