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Director's Column

PLSJC Director Alan Hall writes a weekly column discussing library and community news, history, and other interesting subjects.

What's in the Library Besides Books?

By Alan Hall, Director, PLSJ
Publish Date - Sunday, August 9, 2015

Public libraries and books are considered as one.  The first thing that people associate with a public library is shelves of books along the walls and in open stacks, and if you think this; you would be correct.


The world of a public library has been rapidly changing over the past generation, to the point that young people no longer recognize a typewriter.  I saw a poster the other day showing a card catalog in a library, 1990, and the caption was, “Googling before the computer.”


When our Carnegie Building opened in 1902, it was all about books.  Earlier libraries serving Steubenville gave or sold their collections to the new Public Library so that the shelves would be full on opening day.


The first non-books to appear in that library a century ago seemed to be Civil War maps, which had been provided by the federal government as they cleaned out their warehouses.


In 1911, a librarian’s reported mentioned that “Vertical Files” had been started to aid in answering reference questions of the public.  They were standard filing cabinets with newspaper clippings and journal clippings on subjects of interest to the public.


These “pamphlet files” were maintained into the 1990s, with the clippings attached to different colored paper to designate the age of the information.


By the 1920s, 78 RPM (revolutions per minute) records appeared in the library for the first audio source.  They had to be used in the library with headphones, as these records would shatter if dropped.


33 1/3 RPM long-playing vinyl records appeared by the 1950s and could be checked out, but were easily scratched and warped by heat.  (Many librarians’ hair turned gray from dealing with record circulation)


Microfilm made its appearance in libraries following World War II as a way of preserving and reducing the space used by newspapers and magazines, and continues today as backfiles.


Our library joined the Ohio Valley Regional Film Circuit in 1948, introducing 16 mm educational films and 8 mm entertainment films in the collection for public use.  The 1970s brought Beta Videocassettes for a short time, before VHS Videocassettes became commonplace until that format ended about 2010.


Audio cassettes replaced reel to reel audio tapes, and then disappeared as everything went to a Disc format.


Today, our library system collection consists of DVD and CD formats, eBooks, eMagazines, as well as various online databases and computer systems.


Oh yes, we will have books, those sheets of paper within outer boards that are hinged for ease of use.


Times they are a-changin’ in Public Libraries, but as I have said for years; the primary focus of remains to provide information to the public.


Much of this change has taken place within my 40 years of librarianship, and I have been excited by each and every change as it broadens the ability of the Public Library to service the public.


Perhaps the largest change taking place relates to what we call the “Reference Collection,” expensive books that were the cornerstone of a Public Library.  Online databases are quickly taking the place of those impressive-looking sets of books that used to crowd the Reference section.


And the one “causes me to moan” moment is the demise of “The H.W. Wilson Company.”  Any librarian who could recite the Dewey Decimal System held reverence for old “H.W.” and the impressive collection of reference books they produced.


Founded in 1898 by Halsey William Wilson, this company produced over 80 researching tools for all kinds of libraries from 950 University Ave. in the Bronx with the Lighthouse on the roof.


Perhaps its best-known product was the “Reader’s Guide to Periodical Literature,” those greenish volumes that everyone used from 1901-2005 as an index to journals and magazines.


Librarians knew about the “Book Review Digest” and “Cumulative Book Index” as well as a whole list of “Standard Catalog of…..” every subject and library size known to mankind.


Scores of people sat at wooden desks in the Bronx indexing the world’s information, with desk lamps poised over their work areas in a stubborn effort to maintain the way things had been done for a century.


Toward the end, The H.W. Wilson Company introduced WilsonNet as an effort to tackle computers, but finally merged with EBSCO, another great library company, and moved to Massachusetts to continue their work.


Those books containing a century-worth of indexing are now available online, leaving only some tattered spines in a storage area to remember what has past.


I admit to keeping one volume in my office, out-of-sight, just for old times.