Thursday, October 6, 2011

Reading Between the Lines

Apple 2e circa 1986

"You can't connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something -- your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life."   -- Steve Jobs

Last night’s announcement of the untimely passing of Steve Jobs, co-founder and CEO of Apple Inc, launched me on a search through my old “Bookmark” weekly newspaper column archives for first mention of Apple computer use as a library professional.

The retrospective viewpoint that follows below is mildly hilarious given all that has transpired in the intervening 25 years. The terminology as well as the technology was all new. The floppy disks were huge and actually still “floppy” in our first Apple 2e, the workhorse of the Apple line which was manufactured from 1983 to 1994 and has the distinction of being the longest-lived Apple computer of all time. One of the smartest things I ever did back then was print paper copies of my columns as a backup. All those disks have long since gone the way of the dodo along with all the machines that could read them.

The Bookmark February 11, 1986

The subject today is computers. Thanks to the generosity of a grant obtained by the Wisconsin Valley Library Service, the Rhinelander District Library now has one! I’ve been writing the Bookmark on the computer for the past three weeks.

That might not seem remarkable to you confirmed “hackers” out there, but you have to remember that I worked in a Children’s Department with one functioning electrical outlet until January of last year. Because there was no place to plug in an electric check out machine, we were still using a pencil dater (rubber numbers held by a metal attachment stuck on a pencil) the way librarians did in 1898 when our library opened its doors. A computer was out of the question until our recent building project.

For the next couple of years, our new computer’s main function will be to help our library participate in a “retrospective conversion” project. The first time I heard that term, it made me think of something a person would do to soup up the exhaust system on a street rod. What it means is converting information about a library’s collection from the traditional card catalog format to machine readable cataloging records. It’s called “retrospective” because it refers to going back through a library’s entire collection rather than just beginning to computerize library materials purchased after a certain date.

First, we make sure that the library owns all the books we think it does by taking an inventory to compare the holdings list (or “shelf list”) against what is actually on the shelves and out in circulation. Then, we see how many of our books match entries already in the statewide data bank, adding our own special code to the existing computerized list so other libraries will know we have these titles, too. Finally the titles unique to our collection here in Rhinelander are entered into the computer so that others using the data bank will know where to find them. We store the information on floppy discs and mail them in to the state for central processing.

Being involved in the statewide data bank will make inter-library loans more efficient. Did you know that we already plug into a mighty inter-library loan network through our library system? Persons doing research in Rhinelander are able to borrow materials from other libraries around the state and nation, and even other countries. Our borrowers aren’t limited to the collection purchased with local tax dollars that’s housed within the four walls of the Rhinelander District Library.

You don’t have to worry that you will walk through the library doors someday soon and see a computer sitting where the card catalog used to be. A computerized card catalog may be in this library’s future, but not immediately. Another advantage of having our holdings list stored in machine readable form is that we will not have to go through the time and expense of keyboarding in all the book titles all over again should we decide to automate the checkout procedure or card catalog later on.

Meanwhile, the computer will also be used to make some of the daily tasks performed by the librarians easier and more efficient. We are still getting acquainted with our new “partner” and working to overcome the fear of pressing the wrong button and sending everything we have done to data heaven!

October 6, 2011

Those of you who have been hanging around WVLS as long as I have will recognize the “retrospective conversion” as part of the WISCAT project. Rhinelander’s new computer “partner” had been purchased by WVLS with LSCA (now LSTA) funds, enabling us to join the 300 libraries already contributing their holdings to a database that was then being distributed to participants on microfiche. Two years later WISCAT offered holdings from nearly 700 libraries on four searchable CD-ROM discs. It would be another five years before Rhinelander’s library began working toward implementing a stand-alone automated system leading to eventual V-Cat membership.

Check here if you’re curious about WISCAT history. Under the leadership of recently retired RL&LL Director Sally Drew, the project made a tremendous difference throughout the state, particularly for rural and school libraries. WISCAT continues to provide important linkage for libraries unable to afford higher priced alternatives.

Thank you, Steve Jobs, for being our modern Thomas Edison and changing the way we store, share and access knowledge. Librarians are the original search engines; you put some remarkable tools into our hands and gave us the courage to do more than this 1974 library school graduate ever thought possible….back then a "blog" was just a typo begging for whiteout.

Steve Jobs timeline

Steve Jobs quotes

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