v23 #2 Papa Abel Remembers

by | Jun 29, 2011 | 0 comments

The Tale of A Band of Booksellers, Fasicle 14: Building and Computers in the Twentieth Century

by Richard Abel (Aged Independent Learner)  <reabel@q.com>

Earlier an account of the Copenhagen presentation to Scandinavian librarians was related.  The same presentation was offered in London several weeks later to a group of about 50 UK university and research library librarians organized by Tom Slatner, then running the London office.  Tom had enlisted Maurice Line, then director of the British Library subsidiary responsible for collecting all the scholarly journals and books and reproducing them in support of the Library’s international interlibrary loan service, to chair the meeting.  (The London office was supplying all the non-UK, English-language books to Maurice’s library.)  But there was a surprise laying in wait — Maurice had invited Julian Blackwell to the presentation.  I had no option but to lay out in considerable detail the firm’s systems, having learned of Julian’s presence only upon arriving at the room — that after all, was the point of the gathering.  That a major competitor, who was having difficulty bringing up the systems to support a comparable offering, would have a detailed account of the firm’s systems and their capabilities was entirely beside the point — so, off I went on another six-hour presentation.

The session broke for lunch a little before noon.  Maurice had, unknown to me, arranged that he, Julian, and I, were to go off to a different restaurant for lunch.  I didn’t know, and don’t know today, if some sort of confrontation was expected or some other purpose was to be served.  Whatever, in the course of lunch, I decided to make a proposal of a very different nature.  I suggested to Julian that I would welcome the opportunity to sit down with him and his brother Richard to discuss the possibility of somehow merging our firms.  I pointed out that each outfit had a great deal to offer the world of knowledge creation and distribution.  But that in a genuine sense we were both wasting management time and resources in our worldwide competition.  I advanced the notion that some sort of an equitable merger could not but prove a more powerful vehicle for carrying forward this cultural responsibility.  I knew that the Blackwells were as committed to the cultural role of the distribution of knowledge and the stimulus thereof to new knowledge creation (ala Karl Popper) as were our band of Argonauts.  He indicated that he would carry this message back.  But I heard nothing further for some years when I learned that he had not sent his memo to Richard or the Blackwell board.  Too bad!  What might have emerged from such a joining of forces can still not be divined.

In the several weeks between these two presentations I had had much time in quiet evenings in hotel rooms to further reflect upon the meaning of these sessions and intervening mini-repeats to other librarians and publishers in Europe.  I was particularly struck by the degree and extent into which I had fallen into the information trap.  I, together with the entire band of Argonauts, had entered the game as bibliophiles and scientiaphiles (the latter a neologism invented for the immediate purposes herein) but we were submerged in specific bits of information.  It was true that we still dealt with books, the “violls” (to use Milton’s apt phrase) of knowledge, but their essence had been subsumed within the continuing focus on programs and systems dealing with their control as objects rather than violls of hard-won knowledge.  The only knowledge to be found in this welter data and technical information was the over-arching design of the system and its components — and more importantly the understanding of what the entire construct was meant to do.  I, for example, no longer studied publishers’ catalogs or subject bibliographies, and together with the office managers I no longer selected books to fulfill a variety of users’ needs.  Almost all the Argonauts were now setting up networks to couple the firm’s systems to library needs.  I hardly knew what was being published, so I might add to the library that I had long planned to occupy my advanced years.  A massive unforeseen consequence indeed.

Whatever, I returned to Portland to take up the tasks of getting a new building up and planning its layout.  To this end, meetings with the managers of each of the individual operating sections were conducted to solicit their sense of the amounts of space and other facilities each would require to not only carry on their functions effectively but to provide for future growth.  When these individual plans were in hand, collective meetings of all the managers were mounted to plan the co-ordination, and resulting physical relations were held to optimize the flow of books, cataloging, processing, and related functions.  It took about six months to gather and integrate this information.  Thereupon a rough layout, reflecting dimensions as well as operating relationships, was created.  This layout was then taken to an architect from whom final construction drawings were duly received.

In the meantime, Keith Barker had been looking for a site of sufficient acreage to accommodate this building somewhat larger than two football fields placed side-by-side, plus another future building of the same size to accommodate growth, landscaped parking segments, and well-landscaped grounds.  The aim was to present a handsome campus to passersby and pleasant grounds for the staff in good weather.  He located such a site of about twenty-five acres in a semi-rural setting with good transportation access.  And with that, the firm was on its way to a fine solution to its long-standing space problems, and the staff was able to communicate readily with one another, thereby greatly improving the efficiency of the Portland office.  And what a marked improvement over the old, outworn garages, manufacturing plants, and storefronts which had been the firm’s habitat from its founding this was proved to be.

Keith was then faced with the problem of financing such a substantial acreage and building cost.  Financing is a never-ending preoccupation of every growing firm. But it is a particularly difficult matter in the case of a bookseller.  Few bankers or investors have any interest in so marginal a trade as the book-trade and particularly the scholarly book-trade.  Hardly surprising when investments in manufacturers, contractors, car and appliance dealers, etc. dealing in genuine hard goods are widely available — nothing so questionable as scholarly books the customers for which are widely and thinly scattered across the face of the globe.  Scholarly books are an arcane and difficult-to-dispose-of form of collateral.  Whatever, Keith succeeded in lining up the financing for this project.

While this undertaking of a building to solve our efficiency problems and attendant financing problems consumed much management time, the work of offices scattered across North America and with a beach-head in Europe continued on apace.  Sales continued to grow, procedures were routinely being refined, and various amalgams of the array of services the firm had developed were constructed in response to the unique needs of particular libraries.

All of this growth naturally led to a number of people joining the operating staff.  This growth in numbers of staff led to an amorphous problem.  When the staff was small and the range of services offered limited, new staff members rather naturally and quickly came to understand not simply the procedures associated with the jobs to be accomplished but the spirit of the firm, the dedication to the idea of the scholarly library, and their place in the operation of Gutenberg’s knowledge generation and dissemination engine — of getting knowledge from those who knew to those with a need to know.  Something had to be done in a more formal manner about getting the new staff up-to-speed on these basic principles underlying the specific tasks performed by the firm.  So the managers were all asked to articulate these precepts to their staff members. Some of us involved with larger numbers undertook to gather staff for more formal sessions articulating this sense of the grounding and purpose of the firm.  This initiative seemed to be of help in generating and maintaining a common sense of the raison d’etre of the firm and the jobs it was expected to perform.

In order to meet the increasing need for Approval Plan forms, the computer staff had converted the printing of these forms from an array of Flexowriters (something on the order of 25 machines occupying a medium-sized room, as I recall) to the computer printers. Catalog card databases and production had always been fully-executed on the computer.  So, the computer was finally fully-integrated as a stand-alone device in the work-flow of the firm.  Gary Olson and the computer staff had, in effect, pioneered the integration of the computer into the heart of the library acquisitions and cataloging functions.  The firm could now provide an integrated body of the principle functions on the book side of the scholarly library.

Whatever the passing elation of reaching that mile-stone, the firm remained embedded in a rapidly evolving environment.  This changing environment demanded continued attention to maintaining the reputation for responding positively to the changing needs of the scholarly library, as well as operating its systems and procedures in the most efficient way possible.


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