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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.

Celebrating 35 Years of Service to the Public Library

By Alan Hall, Director, PLSJ
Publish Date - Sunday, November 27, 2005

Last week, I discussed the predictions of a futurist relating to libraries and the information age. In December, I will celebrate the 35th anniversary of my "first day on the job" working in a public library, and would like to now look back. My parents took me to the library every week, beginning when I knew only a few words. Therefore, I felt that I had a general understanding of the operations of a library.

My first evening working at the public library was a training session.  I was seated at a table in the work area, and stacks of cards were piled in front of me. "Put them in order, here are some rubber bands," was the instructions of the librarian. The stacks of 3 x 5 cards had typing on one end, my problem was I couldn't figure out what kind of order she was talking about. The librarian was pleasant, and when she returned I posed my dilemma.

"Fiction in one stack alphabetically by author, nonfiction by the Dewey Decimal Number" was her answer. I had to think; fiction means the story is not true, but the word with "non" at the beginning means that it is true.  That always seemed confusing to me.

As I really got into my task, I started piles of different cards as the sorting process began, as if I was playing a card game. One of the other staff came by and asked, "Didn't anyone give you the card-sorter?" She returned with an object about 2 ft long, with 24 plastic flaps that lifted to provide a place to begin separating the stacks of cards, with Dewey numbers on the other side. It didn't really help a lot, but made the card sorting more fun.

The public library of 1970 was a place of books, books, and more books.  The only audio-visual items were 33 1/3 rpm long playing records, and 16 mm films. The checkout of books was accomplished with 3 x 5 cards, filed by the date due, and someone at a typewriter pounding out overdue notices beside the Rolodex file of slips. Hints of the future were creeping into the library.  A coin-operated copier didn't work well, it was consistently jammed with paper and ink of sorts, sometimes caught fire.

In Columbus, an organization called OCLC had begun to catalog books on a computer system in 1967.  The public library in Columbus was the first to use a computer to ease checkout of books beginning in 1970. Southeastern Ohio libraries were the first to use telefaxsimile machines to transmit information; it took 6 minutes to send one sheet of text. Other libraries microfilmed their checkouts and did something with them.  Still other libraries used cards with holes punched in the side, and knitting needles to somehow separate the checkouts. That was one generation ago. 

The computer that seemed too expensive to come to all libraries made the transition.The computer has joined together the administrative function of checking in and out the collection of the library, with access to the information whether in print or electronic format.

Like any profession, we save pieces of the past.  My office has the old Cutter-Sanborn Tables for cataloging books, sitting out of the way on the top shelf.   Pieces of a Model C Book Charger rest in a little box beside it. And hanging on the wall as if a decoration is No. 810 Card Sorter, sold by the Gaylord Brothers, Inc., of Syracuse, NY.