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Tuesday, April 3, 2018

How Computers Came to the Smithsonian Libraries

In the beginning, few offices at the Smithsonian used computers. The Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory used MIT’s IBM 704 to calculate the orbit of the Russia's Sputnik satellite, another office used an IBM 360 to keep track of grant applications, the Fiscal Division (accounting office) was running some programs on an IBM 1440, and the natural history museum was just awakening to the tremendous potential of collections automation. Yet there was another area well suited to computerization: the Smithsonian libraries. A copy of a book in one library was the same as a copy in another library. The information about one book was similar to the information about another book --- title, author, publisher, publication date, etc. This made it easy to devise data formats that could be applied to all libraries. The Library of Congress pioneered a format called MARC (MAchine-Readable Cataloging).

Mary A. Huffer, Acting Director of Smithsonian Institution Libraries who introduced computer automation,
in the Catalog Room of the Smithsonian Central Library in the National Museum of Natural History.
Smithsonian Institution Archives, Image Number OPA-68-26A.
At the behest of Smithsonian Secretary Ripley, the libraries scattered throughout Smithsonian museums and offices were brought under one central office – the Smithsonian Institution Libraries (SIL). This office mandated a conversion from the Dewey Decimal system of cataloging books to the Library of Congress method. Some of the branch libraries were in bad shape, both in regard to physical condition and cataloging. The Zoo, as an example, “had a little library in two or three rooms of an old house [Holt House] --in fact, some of the books were shelved in the men's room, and they had to go knock on the door to get in this cubbyhole of this old administrative building.

Cataloging and purchasing books were both expensive and labor-intensive. They were obvious early candidates for automation. The Acting Director of SIL, Mary A. Huffer, so far as we know, had no background in computer technology. Yet she was to prove remarkably resourceful in automating the libraries. She sought advice and software from the Interior Department, the Atomic Energy Commission, and the National Air and Space Administration. By March 1965, she had a long-range plan in mind:

Our first application will be the business application in our acquisitions program. We have to keep a tally of 80-some accounts, and we are one of the few units where purchase orders are written and go out directly, so we are trying to tie our system into the Fiscal system and to coordinate these to relieve our acquisitions people of some of this record-keeping.
As soon as we get over the purchasing hurdle we are going to tie in our gift and exchange program. Then we are going on to our serials [like scholarly journals]. Then, we hope, perhaps, circulation. Because of programming difficulties, the last thing we are going to try and pull in on this will be our catalog card production.
We want to start card punching in the next six to eight weeks. We will be building up on punch cards information to go into the retrieval system and into the catalogs. Eventually we hope we will even produce book catalogs and do away with the maintenance of all these separate catalogs in various buildings, reading rooms, special subject collections, and so on.

The library trained its own staff to punch the cards that would be fed into the computer’s hopper to avoid to having to correct the work of unskilled punchers. In a surprisingly short time, the library could report significant improvement:

Late in June, 1965, an IBM-29 key punch was installed in the acquisitions section, and during fiscal 1966 all purchase orders were printed on the computer in the Smithsonian’s data processing unit. The ADP program now provides computer-printed purchase orders, bi-weekly reports on the status of various accounts, receiving cards, book labels, Library of Congress card order slips, and temporary catalog cards.

Retirement party for Mary A. Huffer, Assistant Director of Smithsonian Institution Libraries (SIL), with Russel Shank, SIL Director. Smithsonian Institution Archives, Image Number 74-2487. 
Mary A. Huffer was succeeded by Russell Shank in September 1967, as the first Director of the libraries. He connected the libraries to OCLC, which furnished cards formatted according to Library of Congress specifications. This saved the libraries not only time and money, but also errors in entering data. But the Smithsonian libraries had moved into the digital age well before library automation packages were available.

John Churchman, Computer History Project Volunteer

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