Parents of Invention: The Development of Library Automation Systems in the Late 20th Century

By Christopher Brown-Syed. Santa Barbara, CA: Libraries Unlimited, 2011. 145 pp. $60.00. ISBN 978-1-59158-792-7.

Parents of Invention tells the story of library automation centered on the 1980s, when an unusual set of circumstances resulted in a distinct mode of technical and institutional innovation. While the Internet was present and the idea of networked information was in the air, the World Wide Web was still some years in the future. The rise of affordable minicomputers in the 1970s offered medium-sized libraries and library consortia new opportunities to create medium-scale automation efforts, quite apart from the heavy expenses and unwieldy complexity of large-scale, mainframe computing systems. An innovative network of librarians and archivists during these years had substantial agency to set the agenda for library automation. It is refreshing to have an account of computing and innovation where the central players are in Canada, Australia, and England as well as in Silicon Valley. The book is based on 15 interviews, documentary evidence, and the author’s personal experience working for two of the prominent library information system vendors.

It is commonplace now that libraries are perhaps the quintessential information institutions (131) but it is worth remembering that this truism was not always so clear. Back in the mainframe-dominated era of the 1960s and 1970s, library theorists and library managers had to conceptualize the flow of information through a library—the circulation of books and serials, cataloging records, financial transactions—before they could successfully automate these processes. A key point is that while automation concepts were defined during the mainframe era, it was during the subsequent minicomputer era (treated here) that vendors, often working closely with library users and consortia, created the first widely available, commercial products that spawned widespread library automation. To a significant extent, Brown-Syed suggests, the continuing legacy of this minicomputer era is readily at hand since “the programming concepts, the data storage and communication standards, and the overall functionality of integrated library systems were defined during this mini-computer era” (4). These standards and expectations largely shaped the following client-server and microcomputer eras of library automation. It is an achievement of this book that the inevitable odd mistakes and false starts that assisted with long-term learning are not glossed over. One early system promptly crashed when a user came bearing 256 items to be checked out, since the maximum permitted number defined by the system’s designers was only 255.

The core of Parents of Invention relates a story of user-driven innovation, a theme of considerable recent interest today in economics and technological history also. Libraries at the time were a new and challenging field for companies that had focused on computation for science, business, and the military or automation in such industries as banking. Among the distinctive needs of libraries were processing materials in multiple languages, accounting in foreign currencies for acquisitions, handling lengthy and variable-length records, and online processing response times no longer than two seconds (72, 123). Already there were notable resources such as the Online Computer Library Center (OCLC) and Research Libraries Information Network (RLIN), in addition to other national databases such as the Library of Congress effort to provide cataloging data during publication (CIP), and the effort behind Machine Readable Cataloguing (MARC) itself. Successfully achieving library automation, especially at the medium-sized libraries and consortia examined here, involved relating local needs and library practices to these national resources. Specific librarians and other key “user groups” worked closely and even cooperatively with library automation vendors.

It was a heady time also for the vendors of automation systems. Geac, a company based in Canada and one of the several automation vendors profiled in this book, strongly encouraged librarians and other users to directly participate in innovation when it provided complete access to its program source code. Users might write enhancements and modifications that could be subsequently shared with other locations, seemingly an early instance of “open source” models of software. Geac was able to share its software, however, in part because its software ran only on its own proprietary hardware and so the company’s profits were secure. Other distinctive challenges owed to the limited bandwidth of dial-up telephone lines. Several hybrid schemes with microfiche, magnetic tape, and CD-ROM disks flourished. Two of the book’s middle chapters detail the efforts of vendor representatives to install automation systems, often requiring them to spend weeks or months in library locations far distant from corporate headquarters and consequently building further ties between libraries and vendors. A final substantive chapter profiles vendor activities during the transformation of several larger library systems, including Toronto’s York University, the West Point military academy, Northwestern University, and Australia’s UNILINC.

The rise of commodity products in both software and hardware by the 1990s spelled the end for this distinctive user-vendor mode of innovation. The Unix operating system, SQL query language, and standard hardware platforms in microcomputers altered the course of library automation and the wider industry. This book presents an essential chapter in the history of library automation, where, for a time, “librarians themselves took charge of the development, implementation and ongoing function of their systems” (124).

Thomas J. Misa, Charles Babbage Institute, University of Minnesota