The More Things Change, The More They … Change

[Contributed by Cara Marcus, MAHSLIN President]

As you know, it’s MAHSLIN’s 30th birthday this year.  Where were you 30 years ago?  Some of you weren’t even born yet, while others were working in the same libraries you are now, although the job itself has changed dramatically.  As for myself, 30 years ago I wasn’t yet a medical librarian, or even a librarian, but a very happy library assistant in a lovely small-town public library in New York.  That library has changed completely too – a whole new building, new staff, new services – but I remember it like it was yesterday.

30 years ago (1983) was a pivotal time for many libraries – mine included.  That was the year we AUTOMATED.  Big boxy computers were brought in, trainers followed them, and existing and new staff were instructed on how to enter all the holdings and all the patrons into these formidable machines.  Actually, they weren’t too formidable – they reminded me somewhat of the “pong” game we had on the TV with their big black screens and blinking green cursers.  Still – I was happy when I was told I was not going to be one of the staff chosen for the data entry project (my time that summer was spent sublimely creating large paintings of Curious George and Winnie the Poo for the Summer Reading Club).

So what did automation replace in 1983?  There would be no more manual checking for reserves, which had to be done every time a book came back.  We used to have a large rotating carousel with index cards, and every time a patron returned a book, one of the assistants had to check the for title to see if someone had reserved it.  Another time consuming task that would go by the wayside was sorting and alphabetizing card-catalog cards, which we did in long A-Z trays with lift-up slats.  But I don’t think anyone could foresee how much computers would change any and every aspect of library work.

I remember so much about that library with warmth and nostalgia.  We showed reel films every month (reel – meaning they played on motion picture projectors).  There were only a few staff in the library that knew how to run the equipment, and it seemed like the whole town turned out when they were offered.  There were two small glass-walled rooms with typewriters that students and businesspeople had to sign up to use in half-hour blocks.  These were almost always in use.  Library newsletters were printed on mimeograph machines, with trademark purple ink.  Once they were printed, my colleagues and I would spend hours hand-folding them.  And yes, we used library paste to affix the sign-out card pockets to the backs of the books.

How did the reference librarians find information in 1983 before there were databases and electronic resources?  They read, and read and read, to learn the content of the material in their collections, and used bulky print indices for various subject literature.  Librarians at a small library like mine would have to spend a lot of time calling and writing (not emailing – writing) to other librarians to see who may have a particular resource.  It was not unusual for reference questions to take weeks to be answered.

If you were working in a library 30 years ago, I’m sure you have similar memories and stories.  No one could have foretold how much our profession would change.  When MAHSLIN created their first Union Lists at that time, the librarians involved were paving the way for the future.  Now we can access hundreds of thousands of resources nearly instantaneously, and we often think nothing of it.

What will our profession look like 30 years from now in 2043?  Perhaps a doctor in the operating room will ask, “Is Oraparythivesamine contraindicated by Mono-limeo-M25d?”  This query will be picked up by his wristPED and immediately transmitted to the librarian in her virtual office on an idyllic Caribbean beach.  She will expertly tell her iSearch the precise search strategy, and then the iSearch will transmit the perfect article back to the doctor’s wristPED, just in time to avert a fatal adverse reaction!   Only time will tell . . . .

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1 Response to “The More Things Change, The More They … Change”


  1. 1 Donna Beales October 3, 2013 at 10:32 am

    I wonder where tools like IBM’s “Watson” fit into technological progression… Will Watson eventually replace us all? I’m sure this will not be a popular thought, and it surely doesn’t make me happy to say it, but we need to be thinking about these things as a profession and finding ways to fit into the scheme of things once natural language technologies are adopted– and they are closer than some of us realize.


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