Standing on the Shoulders of Giants
Yesterday afternoon, the university library system through a party to introduce the new information professionals to the rest of the staff (there are some 250 librarians across the whole library system, so that’s saying something). It was a little overwhelming, but an amazing experience, and I had a great talk with a librarian who had been working in the same library for 31 years. She told me stories about the kind of changed she’d seen in libraries since she was a new librarian herself. It was completely fascinating, and I may have to take time out to go back downtown and seek her out to hear more.
That shift from card catalogues to where we are currently is really something; not just in terms of databases and OPACs, but in terms of the way we can serve users and how much more streamlined our processes have become. I heard a story about how smaller libraries in the system had a dedicated phone line to the main library reference desk in order to get information out of the single copy of the union catalogue, so they could tell a patron which library they needed to go to to get their book. Talk about librarian as interface!
I love stories about old library technology and service methods, but here’s something I don’t understand; why do people think those stories are funny? I really don’t find them funny at all. I find them fascinating. Librarians have always pushed the limits of the technology at hand in order to do their jobs as well as they could, no matter what that technology was. Card catalogues don’t strike me as funny; they were the absolute best method of organizing and sharing a morass of information without a keyword-searchable database. They were the only way to empower users to do their own searching. They were anticipating the database in ways no one else could have done. I certainly don’t take current technology for granted, but hearing about how librarians stepped into the breech between what patrons needed and the limits of data organization before databases and digital catalogues makes me very grateful to be a new librarian now rather than then; I can sense that there must have been a certain level of frustration when the only interface you can use to determine whether or not a book was at one college or the next, at the main library or at in department collection, was a telephone call to a another busy reference desk. But they really pulled out all the stops, and I can only applaud them for that.
So, tell me, why are stories about old technology funny? I feel like people laugh because of how low-tech it is (like ditto machines and monstrous computers that accept punch cards), and how silly it would look next to our current tiny laptops and cell phones and bar codes, but that doesn’t seem fair. You can’t really compare technology backwards like that; people did what they could with what they had, and to be perfectly honest I think they managed to come up with more creative and thorough public services based on the technology they had access to than we have. We’re standing on the shoulders of giants, after all; both the technology and the librarians got us to where we are now. We don’t have to call up a larger library in order to determine the location of a book. With that extra energy, we should be providing a higher level of service than they did back in the early 70s. But are we? I guess it remains to be seen who gets the last laugh.