Monday, May 25, 2020


I've been trying to capture what I remember about the early days of library automation. Mostly my memory is about fun discoveries in my particular area (processing MARC records into the online catalog). I did run into an offprint of some articles in ITAL from 1982 (*) which provide very specific information about the technical environment, and I thought some folks might find that interesting. This refers to the University of California MELVYL union catalog, which at the time had about 800,000 records.

Operating system: IBM 360/370
Programming language: PL/I
CPU: 24 megabytes of memory
Storage: 22 disk drives, ~ 10 gigabytes

The disk drives were each about the size of an industrial washing machine. In fact, we referred to the room that held them as "the laundromat."

Telecommunications was a big deal because there was no telecommunications network linking the libraries of the University of California. There wasn't even one connecting the campuses at all. The article talks about the various possibilities, from an X.25 network to the new TCP/IP protocol that allows "internetwork communication." The first network was a set of dedicated lines leased from the phone company that could transmit 120 characters per second (character = byte) to about 8 ASCII terminals at each campus over a 9600 baud line. There was a hope to be able to double the number of terminals.

In the speculation about the future, there was doubt that it would be possible to open up the library system to folks outside of the UC campuses, much less internationally. (MELVYL was one of the early libraries to be open access worldwide over the Internet, just a few years later.) It was also thought that libraries would charge other libraries to view their catalogs, kind of like an inter-library loan.

And for anyone who has an interest in Z39.50, one section of the article by David Shaughnessy and Clifford Lynch on telecommunications outlines a need for catalog-to-catalog communication which sounds very much like the first glimmer of that protocol.


(*) Various authors in a special edition: (1982). In-Depth: University of California MELVYL. Information Technology and Libraries, 1(4)

I wish I could give a better citation but my offprint does not have page numbers and I can't find this indexed anywhere. (Cue here the usual irony that libraries are terrible at preserving their own story.)