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University Libraries - News, Events & Exhibits

The Evolution of I.T.

As technology remakes libraries, six librarians describe the changes and the response to those changes they've observed in their specialty areas.


Kate Boyd
Digital Initiatives Librarian, Digital Collections

Our department has been scanning and making available online materials from the USC special collections libraries for over 10 years, amassing a collection of over 675,000 items and growing. The creation of the department brought technical efficiencies, coordination efforts and standardized guidelines to the disparate and unique departments that worked very individualistically for years. Finally, researchers could search these historical, fragile materials in one online interface.

Searching for newspaper abstracts on CD-ROM
at Thomas Cooper Library, c. 1980s.
Photo courtesy of University Archives

Expanding access through the Internet has allowed libraries to reach new and returning users in different ways. A seasoned researcher can now plan a trip with more in-depth questions. Genealogists, historians, K-12 teachers and students from across the country and world have more access to these fragile materials as a result. Now, instead of only accessing the collections by entering the building with a pencil while the department is open, users can study them anytime and for as long as needed.


Glenn Bunton
Head, Library Technology Services

We certainly have come a long way. The origin of the card catalog occurred around 1789 in France. The embryo of the online catalog appeared in the late 1960s. The online integrated library system began developing in the 1970s with the first online public access catalogs appearing in the 1980s. The first online database, Medline, launched in 1964. Computer-aided instruction developed in the 1970s and ’80s using CD-ROMs and videodisc technologies. Rough examples of electronic books began developing in the 1960s. Adonis, one of the early electronic journal experiences, launched commercially in 1991. That same year, the first webpage launched. Character-based online public access catalogs began to be replaced by web-based graphical user interfaces in the 1990s.

Now library patrons use optimized discovery layers on top of sophisticated next-generation catalogs to access born-digital content in textual, auditory and visual formats. Full-text e-books and e-journals discovered through searching comprehensive and specialized online bibliographic and statistical databases are the norm. Online teaching and learning is commonplace and expected. At nearly every level, our pencils and paper and catalog cards have been replaced by desktop and laptop computers, barcode scanners, servers and networks.


Heather Heckman
Director, Moving Image Research Collections


There are petabytes

captured on aging plastic

in our vaults. Waiting.

From an advertisement for an
overhead projector, c. 1980s.
Photo courtesy of University Archives


You do not watch films.

Instead, digital copies.

We make them for you.

Web access

Hundreds of hours of

footage online. Thousands more

to come. Curated.


Moving images

are not text searchable (yet);

we must describe them.

Digital formats

Media changes, 

and faster. Migration is

a necessity.

Trusted digital storage

Tomorrow’s access

depends on today’s planning.

Resilient design.


Laura Litwer
Digital Archivist, South Carolina Political Collections

All but one of the sitting members of Congress who have donated or pledged their papers to USC report that 95 percent or more of their records are maintained digitally. Even 20 years ago, most members maintained voluminous paper fi les. Members leaving office often shipped hundreds of boxes of papers, photographs and analog audiovisual materials to their chosen repository. Members leaving Congress today may still send such materials, but they will also send gigabytes, or even a terabyte, of data stored on computers, external hard drives, CDs and other digital media.

A typewriter in the Cataloging Department,
Thomas Cooper Library, c. 1980s.
Photo courtesy of University Archives

Archivists specializing in legislative collections are responding to the deluge of digital data in several ways. These include adapting archival theory and best practices to the digital environment, communicating more about digital materials with donors and their staffs, experimenting with different ways of providing research access to open electronic files, obtaining the hardware and software needed to store and work with those files and undergoing specialized training.


Scott Phinney
Head, Cataloging

Cataloging has been both at the vanguard and firmly in the establishment when it comes to information technology. When Henry Ford built his first Model T in 1908, the Catalog Rules Revision Committees of the American and British Library Associations published a volume that laid the foundation for what eventually came to be called “metadata.” Metadata is the “data about data” that provides us with information about a particular item, whether it be a book’s title, a photograph’s subject or anything else you might want to know.

The card catalog system served users well for the better part of a century, particularly once the MARC (MAchine Readable Cataloging) standard was developed in the late 1960s to print the cards and distribute them to other libraries around the world. We’re still using MARC to provide the core data to search the library’s collections.

Librarians and IT professionals have long known that MARC cannot continue into the modern Internet-based world of linked data and the semantic web, but with decades of work invested in this standard, the discussion has been around what to replace it with and what to do with the millions of records we have created to this point.

Card catalog, Main Level,
Thomas Cooper Library, c. 1980s.
Photo courtesy of University Archives

Fortunately, we are getting close to an answer. An initiative by the Library of Congress called “BIBFRAME” seeks to create highly structured metadata optimized for web discovery while retaining the contextual framework that librarians have long supplied for users. This initiative has a lot of support in the cataloging community, but with a responsibility to continue to provide access to our millions of resources during the transition, the work is proceeding cautiously.


Jen Wochner
Digital Archivist, Music Library

Since beginning library school in 2003, I’ve seen the widespread adoption of digital libraries to showcase special collections materials in academic libraries, as well as the evolution of finding aids from paper to HTML to encoded archival description (EAD). The development and implementation of EAD represents an important aspect of technological evolution in libraries to bring together information from different systems and allowing everything to be searchable in a meaningful way. I’ve also seen great technological strides in the area of music librarianship. When I was an undergraduate music student, almost nothing was online. We went to a listening room to check out CDs and LPs. We checked out paper scores to study and play. Now students can find both recordings and printed music 24/7 through electronic databases like Naxos and Alexander Street Press.

This article appeared in the Fall 2017 issue of University Libraries.