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Friday, September 01, 2023

Parents of Invention (2011) by Christopher Brown-Syed

Parents of Invention: The Development of Library Automation Systems in the Late 20th Century by Christopher Brown-Syed; foreword by W. David Penniman and conclusion by Louise O’Neil. Santa Barbara, California: Libraries Unlimited, 2011; xxi, 145 p., illus. ISBN: 978-1-59158-792-7 (paperback).

In Parents of Invention, Christopher Brown-Syed recounts developments in library automation from the 1970s to the 1990s, an important era in library computing dominated by what came to be called the integrated library system (ILS). After earning a BA at York University, Brown-Syed began his career with the emerging library vendors Plessey (a British firm that introduced an early version of the barcode) and Geac Computer Corp. (founded in Toronto in 1971). He knew firsthand about the revolution of circulation and catalogue functions that took place in libraries during this transformational period. Later, he turned to an academic career teaching at library graduate schools in the United States, at Wayne State and Buffalo, and earned his PhD in Library and Information Sciences at the University of Toronto in 1996. His dissertation, “From CLANN to UNILINC: An Automated Library Consortium from a Soft Systems Perspective,” reviewed the development of networking in Australia. Unfortunately, Brown-Syed died unexpectedly in March 2012 while he was teaching at Seneca College in Toronto.

Brown-Syed organized his historical account around interviews of librarians, computer programmers, and salespersons. He provides a Canadian perspective even though many of the fifteen contributors he interviewed are from the UK and Australia. There is a brief forward by David Penniman and a concluding chapter by Louise O'Neill (McGill University), who discusses important developments in library automation and the digital library, such as open-source software, open access, discovery tools, and Web 2.0. We learn how the “parents of invention”—librarians and vendors working collaboratively—implemented new technologies to improve library operations in technical services, and ultimately in public reference contexts. Parents of Invention unfolds in eight chapters as the author discusses the challenges facing early ILS vendors during the period of mini-computer dominance. Vendors and tech-minded librarians collaborated closely in a competitive marketplace and automated environment that changed libraries forever.

(1) Origin of Magic. The ILS first appeared in the mainframe era of computers: with the development of MARC (machine-readable cataloguing) standards it seemed possible to mechanize many aspects of a library. It was a magic of sorts that needed to be unravelled for computers to create records and share them between libraries. As mini-computers came into vogue, the Canadian firm, Geac, became a leader in this pioneer development. Networking became a logical library activity, and new acronyms, now well known, appeared: OCLC (Ohio College Library Center), WLN (Western Library Network), RLIN (Research Libraries Information Network), etc. Eventually, the mini-computer triumphed, and a new era of commercialization and innovation took hold.
(2) Customers' Perspectives. Brown-Syed outlines customers views on ILS based on many interviews with clients in Australia. He provides background comments on library automation and networking using CLANN (later UNILINK) as an example. CLANN allowed libraries access to mainframe computing, thus introducing automation locally. While computerized searching of external mainframes continued, the introduction of cd-rom technology permitted libraries to begin mounting databases locally on workstations (e.g., ERIC) and end their reliance on expensive online searches through dial-up access to DIALOG or BRS.
(3) At the Interface: Librarians and Vendor Environment. Librarians working for automation firms were an essential aspect throughout this period. Some had considerable library experience and would eventually take positions with Geac and Plessey. Previous success and an ability to travel and connect with people were essential ingredients. Managerial ability was another quality: some librarians became project managers for short periods, a challenging task but a satisfying experience.
(4) The Nature of the Vendor's Work. The author summarizes many interviews with the observation, “It is doubtful that they (the ILS vendors) could have operated successfully had employees not been willing to work long hours, to set and keep their own schedules, and to travel so widely when required to do so.” (p. 55) Workers, mostly tech-savvy computer professionals, were willing to go the extra mile to get the job done.
(5) On Company Time. The nature of work, collegial attachments, the ever-changing work environment, and personal satisfaction is outlined through many comments and Brown-Syed’s own experience. Employees learned to be flexible and accommodate schedules and travel.
(6) Transformations. Geac reached its peak in the 1980s. The Geac System 9000, the successor to the more limited Geac 8000 with fewer dedicated terminals, was introduced in the late 1980s for large libraries. “Turnkey” systems had truly arrived. The chapter gives insight into many details, such as batch processing, computer coding, bibliographic data, computer peripherals, circulation transactions, requests for upgrades, and so on. But the companies that included hardware and software expanded ILS capabilities beyond circulation to include acquisitions, serials control, cataloguing, etc.
(7) Consolidation and Lasting Achievements. The business of automation ultimately led to the rise and fall of innovative firms, such as Plessey, CLSI, and Geac. The introduction of microcomputers changed the business model for companies that relied to a great extent on hardware sales. Open-source development and the advent of Linux, Java, and Python also reduced customers’ costs. These improvements spelled the transition to a new era in ILS development. By the late 1990s, ILSs were including library users through OPACs (Online Public Access Catalogues) and web-based portals on the Internet. Despite the changing landscape for ILS firms and their employees, ILS sales continued to proliferate as library automation spread to every type of library, small or large.
(8) The Future of Library Technology. Louise O’Neil provides a concluding chapter about significant developments in library automation and the digital library, such as the Internet, open-source software, open access, and Web 2.0.

“The development of the ILS was a remarkable collaborative effort, in which designers and librarians as customers played often interchangeable roles. That process continues, but with new challenges and opportunities taking the fore.” (p. 127). In the 21st century, the Internet allows many small client machines and larger servers to distribute workloads. Users have home access to online catalogues or library databases to view their loans or find records on their topics of choice. The computing environment has completely changed. The personable interactions of librarians and corporate employees we encounter in Parents of Invention are an experience of the past.

Brown-Syed concludes by observing that the super mini-computer was perhaps a ‘sunset phenomenon,’ the like of which we will not see again, although we can learn from the history of its development and the dedicated efforts of ILS library and vendor pioneers.