What Does LibTech’s History Tell Us about Its Future?

UMass librarian Jaime Taylor discusses her exhibit, "Science and Technology of Library Science: Past, Present, and Future."

The flier for the exhibit and a view of the exhibit in the Science & Engineering Library, with some of the display cases in the foreground and large format images hung on the wall in the background

When we think of library technology, our minds might go immediately to recent software developments, AI chat bots, and digital archives. Jaime Taylor, the Discovery and Resource Management Systems Coordinator at the University of Massachusetts–Amherst, challenges us to think more expansively about what we mean by “library technology.” Jaime curated an exhibit at the Science and Engineering Library at UMass on “Science and Technology of Library Science: Past, Present, and Future” to illuminate the history of library tech development, from catalog cards to cloud computing. The result is a story not only about technology but about the significant shifts within the relationship between library and society over the centuries.

To learn more about this exhibit, we interviewed Jaime about the “past, present, and future” of library technology.

What was your inspiration for this exhibit? How did you go about curating it, and what sort of things did you collect?

The idea for my Science & Technology of Library Science exhibit came to me via the conjunction of our FOLIO launch and the recent retirements of so many long-standing UMass Libraries workers. The combination of those two things really highlighted for me just how much library work, especially in the back of the house or “technical services,” has changed over the last few decades. And my colleague Ann Kardos’s amazing exhibit, “Unseen Labor,” last year showed me how much more of the story needs to be told, since this is a part of the library that patrons don’t usually see.

I started working at the UMass Libraries about three and a half years ago. I had the pleasure of supervising a woman named Mary Ann Stoddart for about a month, until she retired after 45 years of service at the Libraries. She had been here as long as the Du Bois building and had worked on every software system the library had ever run, starting with a punch card circulation system in the mid-1970s. To spin up that first system, every book—thousands upon thousands—had to have its information transferred from catalog cards to punch cards. Mary Ann told me a story about the first internet connection to the library, carried by a single cable strung to another building, which the wind would occasionally knock down.

And now the Libraries have just moved from a catalog software that used a server-client structure, with a server room on the fourth floor of the library, to a cloud-hosted, web-based software. But even though we no longer type catalog cards, run punch cards, or stamp due dates, there’s still a lot of hands-on work happening in the Libraries. Every book we buy is touched by at least one worker to prepare it for the shelves and for use by our patrons. And that, combined with our modern software infrastructure and ever-evolving approaches to provision of information in a now-largely digital ecosystem, tells a really interesting story.

As for historical scope, I go back to the late 1800s, when Melvil Dewey and others were changing and standardizing librarianship practices, and the early 1900s, when the Library of Congress spun up their card distribution service. Most of the material is from the mid-20th century onward, when mass-produced and automated systems really got going. I wanted to reach back that far because card catalogs, library hand, and typewriters are just as much “technology” as computers are. I put up a set of “Provocations” in the exhibit that gesture at that fact, to get viewers thinking about what they are seeing in new ways.

This is a cliché question, but I have to ask: what is your favorite artifact in the exhibit?

The best thing one of my coworkers brought me was the in-house-produced manual for lettering labels on books. I think it was made around 1958, and the manual itself is typed and handwritten in library hand and annotated by later users. I put a stack of scrap paper and pencils on the display case it’s in, so that viewers can try writing library hand themselves. Another thing I found was the swatch book of bindery cloth, back from when we sent a lot of stuff to the bindery. I also found a later memo between library staff about which colors of bindery cloth were no longer in use, and I put these next to each other. I scanned punch cards and catalog cards and printed them out as posters, with explanatory text; the computer science students have been interested in the punch cards, since they don’t usually get to see examples of past technology like that.

Looking over the developments that occurred in library technology—either from the late 1800s to the present or from the mid-20th century to now—does the technology suggest any changes in the ways we think about librarians and libraries? Does the technology show a commitment to certain values, an abandonment of some values, or an embrace of new ones?

The whole arc from the late 19th to the early 21st centuries reflects the social and political milieux of those times. The answer to why certain developments occurred can often be found in that context rather than strictly in our values. Melvil Dewey’s entire schtick—from the Library Bureau to the employment of women as cheap labor and the development of library hand—reflects the Gilded Age’s emphasis on “efficiency” and “scientific” management—and also Dewey’s involvement in the eugenics movement. The general prosperity in the US in the mid-20th century is reflected in libraries and their early adoption of automation technology. Where I work, the library was one of the very first places on campus to have an internet connection. But it also calls up the atmosphere of militarization and jingoism of the time—the Cold War, the Space Race, wars in Vietnam and elsewhere—especially when we remember that the internet originated in ARPANET, which was a Department of Defense project. And since the early 1990s, libraries have had to contend with ever-accelerating neoliberalism, which is a large part of what has led us to where we are with our current digital tools. I’m currently researching the use of stakeholder theory in libraries, and it’s very apparent that the Clinton administration’s adoption of business management practices in the federal government quickly trickled down into how libraries were managed, including their orientation toward digital tools and other technology. In all of these eras, the larger sociopolitical context is important.

One thing I’ve been made keenly aware of since we launched LibTech Insights is how creative librarians are in their uses of technology. Do you have any examples of innovations—or maybe improvisations is the better word—where librarians developed their own ways of addressing a problem they encountered?

I think the accelerating shift to open-source software shows this. Library workers are looking at the marketplace for proprietary software and realizing it doesn’t serve us very well. Most libraries are public or nonprofit entities, but most libraries run software that is owned by either private, for-profit industry (and increasingly by private equity), or the nonprofit industrial complex. For-profit organizations exist to make money for their shareholders, and they are very good at doing it. The problem for libraries is that the money is coming out of our—mostly public or nonprofit—pockets. One very effective method for creating profit for shareholders has been mergers and acquisitions, resulting in a very small library software marketplace. (Marshall Breeding’s charts are instructive.) If you want a single-search discovery layer with an integrated eResource index, for example, you have three choices: EBSCO, OCLC, or Clarivate/ProQuest/Ex Libris/III. If you want a “next gen” ILS/LPS that manages the life cycles of both print and electronic resources, you similarly have  constrained options. 

When we look at open-source library software as an innovation or an improvisation, it is against that backdrop. The limited marketplace does not always provide us with the kinds of software that have the features and configurability that we and our patrons need. It is also philosophically anathema to what we do as a profession—not to mention prohibitively expensive for many institutions. Open-source software has its own difficulties, especially in terms of skill sets and personpower, but it solves a lot of these problems. (If you would like to read 5000 words of my thoughts on the library software marketplace, I wrote this blog post a couple years ago.)

Your responses point out that beneath the glimmering sheen of digital technologies exists the values and structures of private enterprise, which are often at odds with the core values of libraries. I’m interested to hear your thoughts on ChatGPT, which has both horrified and intrigued many librarians. What does your exhibit suggest to us about how librarians and libraries will interact with ChatGPT and related AI technologies? Where might they fit within the histories your exhibit develops?

The exhibit does not touch on ChatGPT and the like, because they’re so new, happening as we speak, and also because I don’t really think they are library technology per se. My timeline ends with the current move to “next gen” catalogs, whether proprietary ones, such as Alma, or open-source ones, such as FOLIO. In doing so, it also encompasses related technology shifts, such as the move to cloud computing—remember, the cloud is just someone else’s computer—and software as a service (SaaS) licensing models.

One of the “Provocations” I included is Neil Postman’s six questions for new technologies, along with Zachary Loeb’s seventh question. Zachary is a dear comrade and sometimes coconspirator through whom I am familiar with Postman’s work; he’s currently finishing up a PhD, with a dissertation on Y2K. These questions ask the following:

  1. What is the problem to which this technology is the solution?
  2. Whose problem is it?
  3. Which people and what institutions might be most seriously harmed by a technological solution?
  4. What new problems might be created because we have solved this problem?
  5. What sort of people and institutions might acquire special economic and political power because of technological change?
  6. What changes in language are being enforced by new technologies, and what is being gained and lost by such changes?
  7. What happens when you hit this piece of technology with a rock?

What is the problem to which large language models, AI “art” generators, and so on are the solution? Whose problem are they solving? I think it’s pretty obvious that it’s capital’s problem, and that problem is how to make higher profits by not paying for labor. Art without having to pay artists (and in many cases, violating the copyrights of real artists at the same time), writing without paying authors, software code without paying tech workers, increasing “diversity” in clothing models without paying models. It is, as GeePaw Hill says, “the latest way to extract value from a community’s existence and bonds and function and labor and intelligence and skills and talent, and give it to people who are neither in nor of that community.”

Are library workers going to have to react to these technologies? Yes. Will they make teaching information literacy and ensuring that library patrons have access to accurate information harder? Also yes. We’ve got a lot of new problems (question 4)! And those problems are largely not falling on the people and institutions who had their original problem solved by these technologies. There are ways around our new problems, and I’m sure we’ll continue to develop them. 

This is all aside from ChatGPT and similar large language models simply being… not good. We’ve already seen some pretty spectacular fails, and since these softwares aren’t actually intelligent, those failures aren’t ever going to go away. For example, Robin Bauwens, an assistant professor at Tilburg University, realized that he’d had an article reviewed and rejected by a LLM instead of a peer when it suggested he read articles that don’t exist. Neil Gaiman wrote recently that “ChatGPT doesn’t give you information. It gives you information-shaped sentences,” and this is the perfect illustration.

Catalog cards, handwritten and typed.
Catalog cards, handwritten and typed.

What’s an object from the exhibit you’d like to leave us with? What’s something the object asks us or wants from us?

The array of catalog cards. Some are typed, some are handwritten. They are in multiple languages and alphabet systems. They all provided access to information resources at one point, but now they are merely curiosities, obsolete and far removed from their original purpose. But at some past point, other humans put effort into creating, maintaining, and using them. What of our current library technologies will still be useful in the near or far future? What will their afterlives look like? Will they have been worth it?

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