28 September 2009

From the Newsletter September 1987

(As usual, name have been changed when necessary)

Ending an Era

Editor's note: Our organization was one of the first public libraries in the area to provide book catalogs of its holdings for library patrons. Since the catalogs were introduced in the late 1960s, Science Press in Steling, Virginia, has been the library's only vendor. The decision to move to a CD-ROM-based catalog brings the long and happy relationship between us and Science Press to a close. Mr. Hall sent a letter to Alfred Baker, vice president of Science Press, thanking the company for its quality service and database work which has "made our conversion to an automated circulation system much easier." Following is the letter he received in response.

    Dear Mr. Hall:

    Thank you very much for your kind letter of July 16. I understand completely your reasons for changing over to a CD-ROM based catalog. I'm sure that it is a wise decision.

    Both Agnes Wise and I have enjoyed working with the library staff through the years and we have always appreciated the spirit of cooperation we received from everyone.

    Again, on behalf of the management and employees of Science Press we thank you for your letter and for being such a faithful customer through the years.

    Best wishes to your entire staff and particularly to John McGarty who has worked so closely with us for the past several years and to Mary Vittek before him.

    Best wishes,
    Al Baker


For those who don't remember those Science Press catalogs, they were phone-book-size hardcover books filled with column after column of dense print. There were three volumes: author, title, and subject, and they were printed every couple of years. Periodic supplements took care of materials that were added to the collection in the in-between years.

These listings -- supposedly conformed with the Master Shelf List at HDQ (which itself was supposedly conformed with each branch's Shelf List) -- reflected almost everything the Library had purchased and not formally discarded. (Paperbacks were not included.)

There were no branch locations, no authority control, and very little provision for inventory control. (Every once in a long while, maybe once a decade, branches did an inventory, comparing their holdings to the Shelf List...I don't recall what provision we made for books that were checked out.) With all due respect to the hard-working clerks in Technical Services, too often the catalog looked like it had been typed by an infinite number of monkeys with an infinite number of typewriters.

Information service was something of a crapshoot, to say the least. If a patron requested a particular title, we would start calling branches, on the phone, for a "book check." Remember, we had no way of knowing if a particular title was checked out. Down the alphabet we would go, until we found a copy ("Good, send it here") or -- much more likely -- ran out of branches.

After a time on the Information Desk, you got to know which branches were more likely to have particular types of books. This branch had a good collection of boating & sailing books. That branch had a lot of car-repair books. If you wanted older fiction, call this other branch...they never threw anything out. Ah, those were the days when experience really counted...you young whippersnappers don't know how good you have it! (Did I mention that we had to walk ten miles to work every day...uphill? In the snow?)

If the book wasn't in anywhere, out came the dreaded "pink slip" (aka Intralibrary Loan Request). The pink slip included call number, author, title, branch, and patron name/phone number. Every day, each branch sent out dozens of these pink slips. Every day, dozens more arrived in delivery. Branch staff took the received pink slips and went to the shelves to search for the books. Those that were found, were sent to the requesting branch. Those that weren't found joined the outgoing flood.

So went the pink slips, round-robin fashion, from branch to branch. They probably took weeks to make the round trip of the system. I don't remember how many times a slip would make the rounds, although I seem to remember some that were marked "2nd try" or "3rd try."

In the fullness of time, if a book wasn't found, we would phone the patron: "Two months ago you requested this book...do you still want it?" If the patron still wanted the book, the request went out by ILL -- to other library systems that were undoubtedly doing the same laborious process.

The downside of this complex and pointless-seeming dance was that patrons very seldom got the book they wanted.

One upside was that patron expectations were not really high. On the rare occasions when someone did get the book they wanted, they were thrilled.

Another upside: With staff constantly calling around to other branches for book checks, we all got to know one another pretty well. (It was kinda like Twitter.)


The CD-ROM catalog that replaced those Science Press volumes was almost as useless. It took up a lot less room, but it also required staff to train every patron who walked in the door. (Kinda like today, come to think of it...)

That's okay. Although we never give it a second thought today, the computer circulation system/catalog was a revolution, and a most welcome one. And I say that as the staffer who has served the public with that system the longest: since December 1983. (Yeah, yeah, I know...but she went to Headquarters three Directors ago; he's been there for two Directors\; and as for her, she retired last year. So I'm the only one of the original crew left in direct public service.)

Anybody else have memories they want to share?