Typing to Tagging: 50 Years of Cataloging

Helen Lucas’s career in cataloging began with an IBM Executive typewriter. Fairfield University’s library had just acquired the machine in 1960 when Lucas, then a new high-school graduate, landed a job there. Because most of her job involved typing call numbers, access numbers, authors’ names, and book titles, Ms. Lucas and the Executive spent a lot of time together back in the day.

“I had a long relationship with that typewriter, believe me,” she recalls. “It had proportionate spacing on it. Every letter took up a certain amount of space, and they were all different.”

By the time Ms. Lucas retired from the university library this summer, the Executive had long since been superseded by computers. The Chronicle asked her to describe some of the other technological shifts she encountered in a half-century’s worth of cataloging.

When Ms. Lucas started work at the university, in Connecticut, the library had six employees and between 45,000 and 50,000 books. Today, it has 22 employees and, counting e-books, approximately 525,000 titles in its collection. Over the years, Ms. Lucas also watched Fairfield go co-ed and got her own B.A. there.

Probably the biggest professional shift she experienced took place in 1973, when the library joined the library-resource consortium OCLC. It was founded by a group of Ohio libraries to share tasks like cataloging. Membership came with one remote-access terminal that linked directly to OCLC in Ohio.

“We were delivered one terminal plus several manuals to accompany it but nobody to teach us how to use them. So we basically taught ourselves,” Ms. Lucas remembers. “It transformed all our work flows because we also had to learn computer language, we had to become familiar with the MARC format, we had to know the tagging.”

Pre-computers, the library used blue-and-white cards to keep track of what had been checked out; in the early 1980s, a system using bar codes replaced the cards kept on file at the circulation desk. It took eight or nine months to enter all the items in the library into the new system, Ms. Lucas remembers. “Cart after cart after cart of books” had to be processed. “I thought of it as kind of fun, because I was a young kid.”

The labor was worth it. “Automation has just revolutionized the whole profession,” Ms. Lucas says. “Technology has changed everything for the better.”

The Chronicle asked Ms. Lucas for her thoughts on the future of libraries. “I really don’t know what direction we’re heading in. We seem to be getting more and more away from the print collections, but we’re still buying books,” she says. “I don’t think there’s ever going to come a day when there’s no more books in the library. I think there’s just going to be a lot more of the other stuff.”

As for retirement, Ms. Lucas plans to buy a laptop and spend some time writing books for children. We wondered what she would miss most about her job at the library. “The people I worked with, because they’re a great group,” she says. “Miss least? Trying to find a parking space on campus.”

For now, the IBM Executive remains at the library. If it’s lucky, it will get to enjoy retirement with Ms. Lucas. “Nobody will touch it but me,” she says.

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