Celebrating 125: Library Equipment Through the Ages
Today, libraries rely heavily on digital databases, cataloging software, online networks, and electronic barcodes to keep track of materials, accounts, and products. But, for decades, New Orleans Public Library staff did all that and more without computer assistance. In fact, many of the bygone library tools and equipment are still housed in our Archives, giving us a glimpse into what it was like to work at the Library in an analog world.
Reference & Referral:
In 1974 a consortium of sixteen libraries in the New Orleans area received $155,610 in federal money to fund a reference and referral service for the region. Known as SEALLINC (Southeast Louisiana Library Network Cooperative), the system’s referral center was housed at Main Library –– then called Central –– where a separate staff, shown here in a typically frenzied pose, processed requests from member libraries and routed books and other reference material to the appropriate end users.
In addition to its role of providing books and information to local libraries for the use of their patrons, SEALLINC also provided instruction to area librarians to make them better suppliers of reference services.
Returns & Cataloging:
For years, returned Library books were sent to basement by conveyor belt. Library page Leo Verret is pictured sorting volumes to be put back on the shelves in 1959. With no computer system to keep track of materials, staff utilized a paper system seen in the background that utilized the card cataloging system in order to process returned materials and determine whether or not they were returned on time.
Digital cataloging software has largely replaced the analog card catalog, but the system was vital in libraries for many decades.
Today, library books are usually outfitted with electronic barcodes and serial numbers that help staff keep track of the collection, its whereabouts, and when materials should be returned and to which locations. Before this technology, staff relied on other methods to tag and ID books, as well as to calculate how much patrons should be fined for overdue materials.
When books were returned late, Library staff couldn’t just scan in the book and tell the patron their late fees. Instead, they had analog “fine calculators” to help them do the math. Instead of being stored into a computer, due dates were stamped onto a card kept in a sleeve inside the book. Naturally, stamps were vital in every day library work, so “stamp trees” were commonly used to keep them organized and within reach.
Microfiche & Microfilm
Microfiche and microfilm are very common ways of storing historic documents, particularly newspapers or other publications printed on low-grade materials that don’t tend to store well. Both formats are scaled-down reproductions of the original document and are read with the help of a magnifying machine. Microfiche images are stored on sheets of film, while microfilm is stored on rolls. Both are much more space-efficient and preservable than storing original documents, but microfilm has larger storage capabilities than microfiche. Each roll can hold thousands of images, while microfiche cards often cannot store more than 100.
The Library’s City Archives & Special Collections department still uses regularly both microfiche and microfilm, but has more documents stored on microfilm. Patrons can request access to both forms, and the Library has working analog microfiche readers, as well as digital machines that can process both microfilm and microfiche.
Libraries started using microfilm in the mid-20th century, and many made theirs in-house. The New Orleans Public Library still uses microfilms made by Library and City staff, and the Archives houses equipment used to make the rolls.
The Library has been serving the New Orleans public for 125 years. During that time, there have been countless advances, and technology has come and gone from fashion –– like the electric eraser and the “Electro Pencil.” Both these tools are examples of early Library automation, but presumably did not have long-lasting needs as other materials changed and improved.
Computers, electronic organization systems, and library-specific software have made Library work faster and more efficient. Modern libraries would not have nearly the reach, impact, or capabilities they do without modern technology. However, there is value in looking back at how tasks were accomplished in a pre-internet world, and we are grateful to our City Archives & Special Collections for preserving the past and providing inspiration for years to come.
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