Library Automation: A Quantum Leap in Service Provision, a Quantum Leap in Identity?

Library Automation: A Quantum Leap in Service Provision, a Quantum Leap in Identity?

DOI: 10.4018/978-1-4666-4735-0.ch003
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This chapter examines the development of two technologies related to library automation, Machine Readable Cataloguing (MARC) and Online Public Access Catalogues (OPACs), alongside an examination of how librarians reacted to library automation more generally. The technologies of library automation brought with them the promise of greater work efficiencies and cost savings, but also were seen as threatening core library services, specifically cataloguing and cataloguers. In the 1960s and 1970s, technology was seen as a tool to help free up librarians from the more clerical aspects of their day-to-day work lives so that they could develop more active relationships with their patrons and communities to better understand and meet their information needs. By the 1980s, however, there was a shift to understanding technology as necessary to the survival of libraries and the jobs of librarians.
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Technological change in libraries, like the rest of the world, was slow and limited before World War Two. In the previous chapter, selected early technologies, and their relation to libraries and librarians, were explored. Many of the examples no longer exist in today’s libraries. Card catalogues do, but they are rare and have generally been usurped by Online Public Access Catalogues (OPACs). Telephones are important technologies in the day-to-day running of most libraries, but, perhaps, are now used differently, as Instant Messaging and other online technologies offer alternative ways to request items and make inquiries. Audio-visual technologies are also still around, and arguably have become more prominent in collections with the advent of DVDs, CDs, and online music and video/film databases. But, Biagi’s (2006) prediction that the phonograph would replace the book as the medium of choice never did come true.

This chapter will explore some of the technologies of library automation and their impact on the professional identity of librarians. Arguably, automation had the biggest impact on librarians’ identity since the development of modern librarianship in the 19th century. Although technologies impacted how certain library services were provided (for example, the telephone offered patrons a new way of contacting the library, as well as providing a more efficient way for librarians to communicate with each other), the core technologies–the catalogue, whether book or card, and circulation functions–did not change significantly until the advent of automation. As many individual technological changes created the whole of “library automation,” it would be impossible in this chapter to explore them all. Instead, it will look generally at automation and its associated technologies, and will pay close attention to two particular innovations: MARC (Machine-Readable Cataloguing) and OPACs. These two technologies revolutionized important core library services–the creation and use of catalogue records. They also provide two excellent cases for exploring some of the themes of professional identity during this important era of technological change: the role that organizational efficiency and cost-savings had in the formation of identity–particularly around the fear of losing traditionally important positions such as cataloguers, the focus on collaboration between libraries and librarians to improve services to patrons, and the ability to free information from both the confines of the local institutions and, ultimately, from the library itself, for the benefit of patrons.

World War Two, and the resulting explosion of scientific information and increased levels of literacy that resulted from it, changed the rate at which technological changes affected both society at large and libraries specifically. The traditional paper-based systems of libraries were unable to keep up with this sudden increase in information. But, the changes that resulted from the technologies were not always smooth. For example, the first experiment that used a computer to locate a specific document was completed in 1954 at the Naval Ordnance Test Station at China Lake (Segesta and Reid-Green, 2002). The experiment was devised to help China Lake’s Technical Library manage the increase in reports that resulted from government-supported scientific inquiry. However, due to the manner in which the experiment’s results were disseminated, the full scope of the China Lake experiments was not known to the larger LIS community until much later. China Lake used a combination of punched cards and magnetic tape to computerize an already established co-ordinate index (sort of an early Boolean-based database that was searched by hand). Among those involved in the experiment was Masse Bloomfield, a librarian at China Lake. According to Segesta and Reid-Green, Bloomfield predicted that the manual search would be faster and more flexible than the computer and that the computerization of reference work would dumb down the search: “‘I was of the opinion that reference work requires some imagination and the IBM computer has none’” (p. 30). Other early examples of computer usage in libraries included the Seattle King County Library’s machine-tabulated book catalogue in 1951 and a periodical title catalogue produced by the Drexel Institute of Technology Libraries in 1959 (Bregzis, Gotlieb, and Moore, 2002). Bregzis, Gotlieb and Moore report that in 1968 the Book Catalogs Directory Sub-Committee of the American Library Association counted 135 book-form, machine-created catalogues were being used, prepared or planned. Of these, 21 were issued before 1964.

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