What Ever Happened to…?

By Paul Duckworth, MLS

Xerox Machine

Chester Carlson invented the photocopier in 1938, but the now ubiquitous magic machine didn’t appear in commercial usage until 1959. The first one in the spotlight was the hefty Xerox 914, weighing in at a whopping 650 pounds. It wasn’t long before college students and librarians were “Xeroxing” magazine articles and catalog cards galore, in addition to using the trademarked name as an adjective and a verb.

If you’re old enough, you may recall the Xerox Corporation joining the ranks of Kleenex, Frigidaire, Clorox, and others in endless attempts to get people to stop misusing its name. Today, we “photocopy” everything under the sun using countless brands of equipment. The Xerox Corporation is still in business, and they still make Xerox machines. However, like so many longtime names in American business, they were absorbed into a new enterprise (now called Fuji Xerox).

Microfilm ReaderMicroFilm Reader_1048960790

Bulky and cavernous, these hulks — with names like Kodagraph — started taking up space in libraries during the 1930s. Early models demanded darkened rooms and considerable floor space, although new technology helped squeeze down their size in the 1960s. By the 90s, however, microfilm readers began their decline into obsolescence, a casualty of the mad rush towards digitization. Most medium to large libraries still have one or more devices tucked away for reading microfilm or microfiche on demand, but many staff are understandably unfamiliar with how to use them.

old librarian_2167390Hair in Buns, Shushing, Sensible Shoes: The Image of the Mean Spinster

How did we come to collectively use this image to represent a librarian? In the mid-to-late-19th century, single women started working outside the home in much greater numbers. With many professions still forbidden to women, that of librarian was one of several careers that became known as a “woman’s profession.”

Cornell University librarian Michael Engle, in his fascinating paper “Remythologizing Work: The Role of Archetypal Images in the Humanization of Librarianship,” discusses how the single female librarian was seen as a “good mother,” someone who would educate children and provide morally good literature for the poor and uneducated masses. As Engle relates, the shadow side of this “Good Mother” is “The Crone.” The negative image of the librarian came to gradually replace that of the saint who helps others. Armed with a scowl, shushing library patrons, hair in a bun, feet outfitted in sensible shoes, this mean character lurks even today in the imagination of some people, not to mention living on as a convenient cliché in advertisements. Some of us librarians might admit that, in our early days, we may have put our own fingers to lips to tone down excessive noise within our hallowed halls. I am not confessing.

Card Catalogs

Starting with the Library of Congress’ catalog card service in 1911, libraries began subscribing to this service and filing these cards in the multi-drawered furniture we all remember fondly. Later, OCLC offered its own card service to libraries. Surprisingly, this service continued being offered to customers well into the 21st century. Its termination on October 1, 2015, marked an official close to the card catalog, though they had vanished from most libraries long before that.

Where do old catalogs go to die? Many of them have found new purpose with these uses: sewing and craft supplies, wine storage, coffee tables, shoe holders, displays for postcards in antique shops, etc. Perhaps the most famous example of re-purposing appeared in the TV series The Big Bang Theory, where a card catalog starred as part of Sheldon’s living room decor. And what about those millions of rag content cards with summaries, height in centimeters, pagination, and tracings? At least one resourceful librarian took a heavy box of them home when his library’s card catalog was put to rest. He used them for note-taking and grocery lists. How do I know this? As with the aforementioned shushing, I am not confessing.

But wait, I have declared an end to the catalog too quickly! For libraries that continue to make use of the system today, Brodart makes handsome, well-constructed card catalogs.

24301650_120185669969Library Paste

This sticky paste, generally known in the industry as starch glue, was made of water and flour. Eons ago, many of us used it in our professional endeavors as an all-purpose glue. For the sake of professional accuracy, I must add that as children, a few of us might also have eaten it. You guessed it: I am not confessing to this, either. Production of starch glues was tied to supplies from extensive cassava plantations in Indonesia. When they fell under Japanese control during the Second World War, the industry turned to other types of glues. Here’s a paper on the history of wood adhesives that reveals even more (PDF).

I was not able to discover when use of library paste ceased but can confidently say that when sensible and progressive library staff learned about the virtues of the new PVA glues, they embraced the technological advancement and firmly stuck to it. Besides offering better adhesive qualities, this glue is apparently not palatable.

Library CatsCat on Books_609107240

What ever happened to those lovely felines that used to live in libraries? Many of their kind remain to prowl the stacks and fend off mice. Library cats are still in residence in libraries nationwide, although their numbers are decreasing, perhaps due to a combination of ADA, allergies, and the protests of ailurophobes. My cat still rules over my personal library, though he prefers watching television and sleeping in front of my computer keyboard.

16mm Film Projectors

Can anyone over the age of 40 ever forget the sound of the trusty workhorse Bell & Howell 16mm film projector? For a bit of auditory nostalgia, listen to this YouTube clip. At one time, it was important for AV staff in libraries to know how to use the three types of machines: Manual Threading, Self-Threading, and Slot-Loading.

The introduction of VHS tapes for commercial and educational use in the 1980s led to the demise of film projectors in most libraries. For a brief period, VHS struggled against a competing format, Beta, but soon won supremacy. We all know what eventually happened to VHS. Though gone from libraries, VHS today lives on in basements, attics, and garage sales. Here’s an article on old film projectors to take you farther down memory lane.

CDs_786220756CD-ROM Databases

In the early days of digital information use in libraries, the Internet did not exist for us. Vendors supplied libraries with CD-ROM discs, which looked like today’s music CDs and DVDs. Who of a certain age does not remember InfoTrac, which first infiltrated academic libraries in 1985, and soon followed across all types of libraries? Once Internet access became stable, CD-ROM use soon shriveled and shrank. EdTech has a nice online retrospective on CD-ROM databases.

Melvil Dewey

Born Melville Louis Kossuth Dewey in 1851 in rural Adams Center, New York, Dewey is known for his wide-ranging interests in education, winter sports, spelling reform, and — of course — libraries. His eponymous classification system still thrives, despite long-term competition from the Library of Congress classification system and recent library developments that use a bookstore style to group books by BISAC headings.

As an aside, Dewey would not have survived the current #MeToo movement, for another of his avid interests was female anatomy. Wayne Wiegand, whose biography Irrepressible Reformer: A Biography of Melvil Dewey is considered the most historically complete and revealing, describes his behavior using the phrase “a persistent inability to control himself around women.” Dewey was an interesting, if somewhat controversial character, and it would be fun to write much more about the co-founder of the American Library Association and inventor of the Dewey Decimal System. But to return to the focus of this article, Dewey died of a stroke in Florida, in 1931, at the age of 80.

This forward-thinking quote from Dewey still rings true today:

“A library’s function is to give the public in the quickest and cheapest way: information, inspiration, and recreation. If a better way than the book can be found, we should use it.”

Henriette Avram

If you are like most librarians, you’re asking, “Who was she?” Avram, without a doubt, was one of the most influential figures ever to shape libraries, although few recognize her name. Avram was born in New York in 1919. She was not a librarian by training. Rather, she was a computer programmer who worked for the National Security Agency and, later, the Library of Congress. It was there, at the institution she referred to as “the Great Library,” that she was asked to develop an automated cataloging format. Through her genius, in 1968, the MARC record was born. Avram died in Florida in 2006.

City Directories

Valuable for genealogists, and perhaps most repeatedly used by skip-tracers, investigators, and voyeurs, the contents of the local city directory were among the most requested items of the library-based telephone reference service. So much so that some libraries developed policies as to how much — or little — service they would provide to callers. Strict policies were also developed to safeguard the books from developing legs and walking out the door.

Fold3, Ancestry, and other genealogy databases offer rich historical collections of U.S. city directories, as does the Internet Archive. The obituary of the city directory hasn’t been located, but a plethora of contemporary electronic databases offer much information, usually for a fee. Nothing satisfies the curious more, though, than leafing through the fascinating historical information within the hardbound covers of city directories. The story of how that information was gathered is for another day!

Paul Duckworth New - 2.5 x 3
Paul

Nothing brings a smile to Paul Duckworth’s face quite like a good book, a long walk, and the unmatched beauty of country life. Click here for more.

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