Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Technology in the library

This is a huge topic which includes everything from electricity and internet access, to computers, OPACs, databases, and even reprography. I spoke at length in my video podcasts about the various topics, so I’ll write about how I feel about technology in the library.

When I was little, I’ve been around for a long time, libraries contained no computers, but they did have electric lights. (Just a little humor here.) The technology that I saw consisted of typewriters, card catalogs with lots of drawers,  and the various methods of recording what patrons checked out of the library. Some libraries had you write your name on the check out card and they filed them away until the books were due. That was probably my school library if I think about it. At the public library there was a camera that took a snapshot of your library card and the book card or the book pocket. Again they probably took the cards out and filed them until the book was returned. It seems like a primitive system today, but it worked and still works for very small libraries.

In library school, oh so long ago, I learned to search OCLC and RLIN, Dialog and BRS using typewriters that served as computer input devices called deckwriters (I have no idea how to spell this piece of equipment). You typed onto green and white bar paper that fed through the roller of the keyboard. The keyboard was attached to a computer, one of the databases above, though the phone lines and an acoustic coupler at a very slow rate. The answers or the catalog record information was received through the phone line and printed out through the keyboard. It was slow and cumbersome by today’s standards, but it worked.

Over the years, communication speeds increased and terminals and computers became more sophisticated. Searching techniques have changed and yet still follow the same basic, logical rules, because computers are, after all, computational machines. As librarians and archivists, we have to work with varieties of computers, electronic devices, and databases. They are all different. While I call myself an analogue librarian and love paper based resources, I use electronic and digital resources all the time. I take advantage of the speed of communication and the interconnectivity of information and reference resources. When it comes right down to it, books are technological devices just as much as clocks are, and they fit seamlessly into our computerized, digital world. I do know that technology continues to improve and it constantly changes the way we seek and retrieve information. I just try not to let it rule my life.

If you want to read about the development of computers, just one form of technology that changes libraries, archives, and museums every day, here are two classic books about the origins of computers and the internet.

  • Dennis Shasha and Cathy Lazere, Out of their Minds: The Lives and Discoveries of 15 Great Computer Scientists (NY: Copernicus, imprint of Springer-Verlag, 1998)
  • Katie Hafner and Matthey Lyon, Where Wizards Stay Up Late: The Origins of the Internet ( NY: Touchstone Book / Simon & Schuster, 1996)

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