The March of Time

Technologies change, but innovation rolls along

September 10, 2012

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Can it really be 10 years since I began writing this column? It doesn’t seem possible, yet there I am, horrible picture and all, chirpily nattering away on page 74 of the September 2002 American Libraries. A lot of water has gone under many bridges since then, which puts me in a nostalgic frame of mind. I could revisit those past 10 years, but it seems more interesting to go back 10 more to get a broader perspective.

So set your way-back machines to the year of The Crying Game, Murphy Brown, Maus, and the pre-Monica-era Clintons, and let’s have a look at what was going on 20 years ago. The AL cover was graced by Kristi Yamaguchi, in full glam sparkle for her READ poster, up on her toe picks and brandishing Danielle Steel’s Heartbeat for all she’s worth. That brought back some memories, as did the ads—ProQuest trumpeting full-text availability online and on tape, full images on CD-ROM, and the Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia on CD. Those were the days.

This was September 1992, so there were a number of things that presaged what was on the horizon, besides a terrible economy and draconian budget cuts. There’s a report on an open hearing in D.C. about libraries’ role in the planned high-capacity NREN (National Research and Education Network, the precursor of Internet2) and the importance of funding, access, and library representation in planning (p. 617). We further learn that LC had begun to use the internet for cooperative cataloging and that more than 12,000 people had so far viewed its online exhibit of Soviet documents.

Another report describes a “virtual library” program at ALA Annual with Howard Rheingold that discussed the “cyberlibrary” as a sort of electronic agora (p. 636). Very early 1990s, though I was struck by the comment envisioning the public library as an electronic tool with which people can express themselves—echoes of the now-increasing interest in incorporating creation and the maker culture into the library domain.

Sometimes the simplest ideas, no matter how goofily we name them, are worthwhile. I couldn’t help but smile at the item describing the “Dewey Dialer” developed in Fort Worth to automatically call people about their overdues (p. 618). (It was even smart enough to leave a message on an answering machine!) The discussion about “document delivery in an age of electronic technology” is somewhat less inspirational, though few of us would have appreciated just how completely “document delivery” would be transformed in less than a generation.

One sentence, though, jumped off the page at me and stared me in the eye. At a panel at the Annual Conference, a provost asks the assembled crowd this stunner: “How are you going to define yourselves to me?” (p. 630–631).

That’s really the question, isn’t it, then and now? These are the very beginnings of a profession exploring its boundaries, trying to understand a set of phenomena yet to be ubiquitous and nonetheless on the doorstep and impossible to ignore, no matter how much many of us try. No doubt 20 years on, our first steps to cope with ebooks, the mobile/app culture, social networking, and so on will seem equally crude to our successors, and yet new challenges will face them to demonstrate our worth to our communities.

That conference was held in beautiful San Francisco, where the Gay Pride Parade took place the same weekend as ALA Annual. The July/August issue of AL triggered several months of correspondence and commentary about the cover image, which featured members of the Gay and Lesbian Task Force (which has since evolved into a round table) joyfully marching in the Pride Parade. Reader reaction included high-minded discourse such as “I wanted to puke!” from a colleague in Kansas (AL, Sept. 1992, p. 625).

Nobody ever said progress was going to be easy . . . but that’s another story.

JOE JANES is associate professor at the Information School of the University of Washington in Seattle.