Women's Studies 30

Margaret and Meg--The Evolution of the Library

Anyone who has been to the library recently has seen how great a role new technologies play in its operation. Libraries used to be little more than depositories for volumes of books-- now they are technology driven reference centers with an awe-inspiring amount of information available with just a few keystrokes. Although the library itself has changed, the people who run them have not. The vast majority of librarians are still women, and those men who are librarians tend to occupy more prestigious positions. Therefore, it only makes sense that I would choose to interview two librarians, Margaret and Meg, to see how technology has changed what it means to be a librarian. The following is meant to organize the words of these two women to illustrate the specific changes technology has brought to the library over the latter half of the twentieth century.

First, let me tell you about Margaret (who just happens to be my grandmother). She has been retired for over twenty years now, having begun her work as a librarian in the late 1950's. Worried that her job as a social worker was keeping her on the road and away from her family, Margaret decided changing careers was the right thing for her to do. As a result, she decided to get a Masters degree in Library Science from the University of Michigan (which she received in 1958) and accept a job as the librarian in a juvenile detention home while she completed her education. Soon after she received her graduate degree, Margaret began work in the Wayne County (Detroit, MI) public library system.

Margaret worked as the head librarian for the county's "top library" for nearly twenty years before retiring in 1977. Because her particular library was relatively new, the county invested a disproportionate amount of money to its development. Therefore, Margaret's library was the first library in the region to acquire any new technological device which came on the market. Besides books, her library had a large collection of reel-to-reel movies as well as a large record collection. However, what really changed the library for Margaret were the development of microfiche and the copy machine.

One of the main problems with keeping a wealth of information in old-style libraries was the amount of space books and periodicals took up. Microfiche literally took the periodicals that would take an entire room to hold and condensed it into a few small sheets of plastic. Microfiche revolutionized essay writing because it allowed students to find old magazine articles that the library would have previously discarded due to a lack of space. This technology came to Margaret's library in the late 1960's and to this day microfiche is used in nearly every public library across the country.

The other principle technology which effected Margaret's library was the copy machine. Imagine what life would be like today if you could not copy an article from a journal and leave the library in a timely fashion--it would simply be unbearable. Interestingly, although Margaret's library first acquired a copy machine around the same time as microfiche, the copy machine took much longer to catch on. To this day, Margaret is still angered by those people who ignored the technology available to them and tore pages out of books. She recalls that recipe books were always in the worst shape--and she still believes that "housewives with little children" were the principle culprits of such vandalism.

Despite such annoyances, Margaret enjoyed being a librarian. She understood how things worked (at least relatively well) and was perfectly comfortable with the operations of the library -until computers started to appear. My grandmother could not handle the idea of a computer in her library because she was so used to manual book-check outs and record keeping. So when the computer just started to come onto the horizon, Margaret decided that she had had enough and it was time to retire--she did not want to learn something completely different in the last few years of her career.

This brings us to Meg, who is currently the acting science librarian here at Swarthmore College. Meg's career path, much like Margaret's, didn't lead directly to the library. She received her B.A. in English and Sociology at the University of Richmond in 1981. Soon after, she became a research assistant in the Psychology department at Swarthmore. However, when an assistant librarian's position became available, Meg decided that she had enjoyed her work in libraries when she was younger and decided to apply for the position. She went back to school, although she believes much later than she should have, and received her Masters in Information Science from Drexel in 1996.

Not surprisingly, I didn't even have to ask Meg what the single most influential library technology has been--she simply told me that computers have changed the way everything is done. The first computer of sorts to be used in the libraries here at Swarthmore was the Decwriter--a primitive (by today's standards) means of performing a literature search. Using this machine was both expensive and slow, in fact, students had to schedule an appointment to discuss what words would be used in their search because it was the librarian's job to help minimize the time on the machine as well as to actually perform the search for the student.

Although the Decwriter was technological breakthrough for the library, it clearly had its flaws. It really wasn't until TRIPOD, the tri-college (Bryn Mawr, Haverford and Swarthmore Colleges) computerized library catalog, went up in 1991 that things began to change for Meg's library. It took nearly two years for the staff at the science library to put barcodes on all the books so that they could be kept track of via the computer, an achievement which Meg regards as simply amazing. TRIPOD eliminated the need for the card catalog--both saving space and making searches for books more convenient.

Since then, Meg has had a hard time keeping up with all the new things that happen on computer. It seems like everyday she has to update the library's web page because a new journal has gone on-line. Now there are myriad search engines on the world wide web designed specifically for finding articles in journals, books or any other source of information. Even though Meg believes that books are here to stay, she foresees scientific journals becoming more and more computerized to save space and make life more convenient.

Needless to say, all of this technological change can be a bit dizzying. Meg says that dealing with technostress, the stress resulting from an exponentially increasing level of technology in our day-to-day lives, has become part of her job. Furthermore, Meg notes that perhaps the most fundamental effect computers have had on her occupation is the diminishing distinction between the Computing Center and the Library at Swarthmore College.

As we approach the millennium being a librarian is more complex than it ever has been. Most of us take for granted the technologies now available in our libraries because they make our lives easier--but we should all take a moment to thank our librarian because those same technologies have made their lives much more complex.

David Plante


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last updated 9/8/98