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Director's Column

PLSJC Director Alan Hall writes a weekly column discussing library and community news, history, and other interesting subjects.

Computers and the Library

By Alan Hall, Director, PLSJ
Publish Date - Sunday, April 26, 2015

My first use of a computer was in 1976 in Library School.  The device was located in the basement of the college library in a wire cage, kept locked with a chain and pad lock.


Technically, it was a “terminal” device that connected to OCLC, Inc. in Columbus so the library could enter new books into a union catalog of library holdings for Ohio.  Some type of communications device sat on a table next to it that linked to the mother computer.


Our class stood in a semi-circle around the computer and watched as the letters were entered, and the device on the table hummed and whirred as information went back and forth and new books in the college library were entered into the main frame computer some 150 miles away.


At the time, it was impossible for me to comprehend the benefit of this device, as upstairs students still used a card catalog and librarians wrote out requests for books not owned by the library and once-a-day someone went to the basement and unlocked the cage and hunted the system for the specific books.


Each year, computer technology moved forward from cassette tape memory to floppy disk storage and eventually to mini computers that had their own memory.  In 1984, our library system was told that a main frame computer was coming to the SEO Center of the State Library of Ohio and we too could join.


Month after month information emerged on this computer system, and how local libraries would interface using radios, antennas, satellites, and eventually telephone circuits to link to that big, new computer system.


In 1988, lines were established with each phone line carrying signals for 16 computer terminals and we started barcoding our books.  Cadiz, St. Clairsville, Woodsfield, and Steubenville were the first libraries to begin linking to a system that has now grown to 90 library systems with over 200 locations across Ohio.


The phone lines continued for several years until the State Library of Ohio said that the Defense Department online linkage was being expanded to schools and libraries and we were shown how to use “Gophers” to get information.  It looked like endless pages of typewritten information and it took forever to interpret what you wanted.


In 1995 OPLIN was invented, the Ohio Public Library Information Network started and used the Ohio Communications Network to service all 88 counties and 251 public libraries with trunk lines to Columbus and they showed us “The Internet.”


Those typewritten pages all turned into graphic interfaces and new, more powerful communications systems.


Ohio became one of the first states in the U.S. where all public libraries had Internet services, and library databases formed around the SEO Center, and the major metropolitan public libraries.


It seemed like every time our library system upgraded the communications, we were out-of-date and didn’t have sufficient capacity.  One of the older computer fellows always said that what we really needed was a 1956 Buick Roadmaster to “really power these systems.”


In February, OPLIN doubled our capacity to send and receive data on our trunk line to Columbus, and we are a zillion times faster than 1988, but it won’t be enough.  We now have 135 computers around our seven library buildings doing this and that from circulating library materials to public Internet services in the buildings.


Andrew Carnegie would never have guessed that data is bouncing around within his stone and marble walls as people sit with their lap tops working in his library.


People don’t have to be in that wire cage to access a union catalog of library holdings, and can now request a title from a library collection in Preble County, next to the Indiana border to be delivered to Tiltonsville, without using a four-part carbon form.


Back files of journals and magazines are held in online databases, and can be accessed online for research, and new issues of magazines can be read on a Tablet.


I still have the same lack of understanding for the future now that information will appear on your new watch, in addition to the time-of-day.


What I do understand is that your public library remains in-place, with the old and the new and human beings working at the circulation desk.