Obsolete Academic Librarian Skills

A few bloggers were having fun identifying totally obsolete skills. You know, the sort of things we all used to do all the time that nobody has to bother with anymore. For example, dialing a rotary phone, using carbon paper to make copies, or changing the ball on a selectric typewriter. That got me to thinking that in the years I’ve been in this profession, for the vast majority of academic librarians, there are more than a few accumulated skills and practices that could now be considered obsolete. Here are some that come to mind:

1. Filing order for catalog cards (heck, anything to do with catalog cards)
2. Installing, setting up and using communications software (anyone use SmartCom lately)
3. Understanding the difference between (w) and (n) (for most of us on a day-to-day basis)
4. Creating a menu for choosing CD-ROMs off the networked player (who misses that one)
5. Knowing pretty much every book in the reference collection (or what’s left of it)
6. Printing and distributing pathfinders (path…what)
7. Mailing out reprints of your article (when’s the last time anyone asked for one)
8. Required training sessions before end-users can search online databases (and silly certification practices)
9. CD-ROM training classes (and training the CD-ROM trainer workshops – as if they were ever needed)
10. Setting meetings by going around and asking everyone when they’re available. (thank you meeting wizard)
11. Feeding the paper into the printer so the holes fit into the tractor pins (I hope you still don’t have to do that)

There’s a few to start with – or maybe you don’t agree with some of these. What would you add to your list of obsolete skills for academic librarians. And to not alienate our highly creative newer to the profession readers, use your imagination and let us know which of the skills or practices you are using today will be obsolete 20 or 30 years from now.

54 thoughts on “Obsolete Academic Librarian Skills”

  1. I wasn’t a librarian at the time (well, I worked in a library, but as a student), but you remind me that I will almost certainly never need to configure Trumpet Winsock again. What an odd realization.

  2. Now obsolete: How about DIALOG (or STN) online searching that charged by time and/or number of searches? That led to having to plan our elaborate searches in advance to not rack up a huge bill.

    Almost obsolete: Needing to know HTML in order to create subject guides, or other helpful information via the web (thanks LibGuides!)

  3. Great post — I was trying to think of obsolete library skills myself recently. Partly in support of why I still teach Dialog in LIS, in contrast to Jennifer’s point. I’ve been thinking about this ever since I wrote Why I Still Teach Dialog in LIS here (http://acrlblog.org/2008/01/31/why-do-i-teach-dialog-in-lis/) last month. Yes, we don’t use Dialog much anymore in practice … but it does teach good search skills.

    My reasons for teaching Dialog are exactly Jennifer’s point against Dialog: “having to plan our elaborate searches in advance to not rack up a huge bill.” From a pedagogic perspective, learning how to plan elaborate searches in advance to avoid hefty fees is part of what leads us to be better searchers than the average Googler / patron.

    Of course I do teach (today’s) standard databases like Academic Search Premier, LexisNexis, and Gale products @ Simmons GSLIS. But to focus exclusively on how to use OneFile would be like teaching how to load CDs into a changer (or however that worked): it’s a skill that might be valid for a year or two, or even 4-5 years. But in 10 years? I doubt we’ll be using Academic Search Premier, LexisNexis, etc. as they are now configured.

    I *do* think (hope) we will still benefit from the skills we needed to be successful Dialog searchers. At least, that’s the bet I make when I teach Dialog in LIS …

    (note: Jennifer, I mean you no disrespect, I’m just quoting your arguments because they are so well-stated … even if I’m using them to make the opposite point 🙂 )

  4. #1. Most rare book and special collections libraries still maintain paper shelf lists on catalog cards. It’s the only unhackable, power-outage-protected security document of record for accurately recording what their holdings are in case of theft.

  5. Did you notice how most of your obsolete skills are computer age skills? What about the pre-computer skills? Things like:

    using the electric eraser without tearing up the card;

    knowing how much White-Out (or was is Wite-Out?) to put on and still have it dry in a reasonable time;

    using that little iron thing to get book labels to stay where you want them;

    how to locate citations in the paper NUC to copy out for our catalog cards….

  6. Remembering to switch to the red part of the ribbon when typing subject headings on your cards . . .

    Explaining to students that, when they use Pscyh Abstracts, they have to look first in the index, then write down the abstract number and find it in the other volumes . . .

    Apologizing for the weird organization of Matlon and the Journal of Economic Literature . . .

    Having a magnifying glass in the drawer for people using Science Citation Index – and tranquilizers when the flipping back and forth got too stressful . . .

  7. Typing patron cards (I worked in a public library in the early 90’s). Which meant typing a card with their contact information for our file, and typing a card for them to use!

  8. How about being surly and keeping a pin-drop quiet reading room.

    Actually, I think I know some librarians who didn’t get the memo on that one.

  9. Ah, yes…I forgot all about the call label iron and the electric eraser…thanks!

    How about inking filmstrips (using a nib and white ink to indicate property — maybe this was local to the PGCounty Public School system)

    or, using stencils to create letters for signage?

  10. This was before my time, but my colleagues discuss “library hand’ a lot. The proper way to write a catalog card out by had, I believe?

    I don’t have to apologize for the weird organization of Matlon anymore, but I do have to for ComAbs (and how about CIAO??)! I don’t think apologizing for weird organization is ever going to be an obsolete skill…

  11. A dinosaur we’re still dealing with is the loose-leaf filing service…

    I’m also reminded of command-based WorldCat search methods.
    I had fun with those. Sigh.

  12. How about entering journals and newspapers received into the old manual Kardex? (Actually, we still use this for a few items in our small college library!). And we also “dropped cards” that our students filed after checking to make sure they were filed correctly.

  13. What about keeping track of all the book checkout cards? Moving yesterdays dues to the over due stack; putting the Non-fiction into Dewey order and re-alphabetizing the fiction. THEN, being a school librarian, typing up the over due notices for all the students and getting them out. Automation took care of all those chores.

    Stamping all of the date due slips for the students to use. Organizing yesterday’s checkouts and getting them into the proper slot in the box. Stamping and stamping and stamping before you can start or end your day. I don’t even have a date due stamp anymore.

  14. Actually, I disagree with the “library pathfinders” one – our library still uses the print ones – matter of fact, our online ones get little use, no matter how much we promote them. students still cluster in front of the rack, browse, and wander off with them. I ask them why – and they reply its just easier to have the print to refer to back to “then one more window to open!”

    To each their own!

  15. Many large research libraries still have card catalogs for portions (hidden though they are) of their collections. Maybe we don’t file cards anymore but knowing how they were filed can be pretty key if you are at the UIUC library and want to find a monograph in a series published before the 1970s. Helps too if you need to use the serial record for journals received during but canceled before at particular date (a date that I cannot recall but fortunately know where to find!).

    I’ll second the comment on print pathfinders. We recently returned to created print ones (though they are created from the digital ones). The first day they were out – within a couple of hours the supply on certain topics was already gone!

  16. 11. Feeding the paper into the printer so the holes fit into the tractor pins (I hope you still don’t have to do that)

    That’s rather funny to me. When I started my new job, I had an old OKIDATA on my desk. As time progressed and my paper supply dwindled, I dreaded running out because I had no idea how to load the paper. I also had another piece of equipment that I’m sure was at least 10 year older than me. One day someone in the department wanted to know who had the microfiche reader after a long search, it was found on my desk. I also was too young to know the purpose of the contraption. To assuage the embarrassment I suggested that Apple should have an iFiche for the younger generation.

  17. Verifying each and every ALA interlibrary loan request (paper of course) in the NUC.

    Some of us go back so far that we remember when the NUC Pre-56 imprints replaced the countless 10 year cumulations. Couldn’t wait for that next volume to come in. Now that was excitement!!

  18. Don’t forget about the good ol’ green Reader’s Guide to Periodical Literature in the high school media center! We are completely automated now!

  19. How ’bout looking through every darn volume of Science Citation Index or the Readers’ Guide… to make sure our search was “comprehensive.” (Does anyone still use that word–“comprehensive?”–or do we now know better?)

  20. After having gone through a transition to the IT provider from Hades, and all the down time that resutled, I re-emphasized familairity with the classification system. Being too technologically dependent can be counter-productive! We could right down the numbers and enter them later – but finding the materials…..the classification system earned its pay that day…..and the others.

  21. Anything to do with card catalogs –


    Checking others’ filing

    Doing a “gross sort” with one of those filing organizers (you know, with the flaps with the alphabet on them)

    Knowing just how to jiggle the rod to get it in and out of the drawer quickly

    Knowing the ALA Filing Rules backwards and forwards

    Knowing where the library’s copy of said filing rules was kept

    Re-supplying the little boxes of little pencils and scrap paper kept on top of the card catalog, so patrons could write down their call numbers

    The fine art of writing a call number with a little pencil on a little scrap of paper while balancing the catalog drawer on the little pull out shelf, and simultaneously keeping your place in the drawer with your finger

    Yanking a card out of the drawer (ripping the hole) to take to the shelf, without the librarian seeing you.

    Putting those little hole reinforcement stickers on cards found abandoned in the stacks (or in returned books), and refiling them in the card catalog.

  22. Anyone remember the Recordak check out system? Looking for the paper slip when a book was returned so the patron’s record could be cleared was so time-consuming.

    Anyone still use the Reader’s Guide to Periodical Literature? Hurray for online magazine databases with full text!

  23. Anybody have to use an acoustic coupler to connect to any database providers lately? 🙂

    I really like the electric erasers entry, and the OCLC search string options.

  24. Write call numbers in the “Key to Symbols” in Granger’s Index to Poetry so users can find the poetry anthologies in the library without having to go to the card catalog.

    Dialing telenet (or whatever it was called), listening for the tone, and quickly getting the phone into the acoustic coupler so you could search at 300 baud.

    Filling out ILL forms to mail to other libraries.

  25. I don’t think anyone mentioned typing DOS commands, or writing DOS batch files yet. Remember those?

    Reminds me of one of my favorite obsolete jokes. What do you get if you cross Lee Iacocca and Dracula?


  26. We still use the little iron to apply spine labels. They stay put much better than those that our shelf-ready vendor uses.

    And I still find that the derived searches (4,4, etc.) can be the fastest way to find what I want in WorldCat.

  27. Using “dumb terminals” to look up books in the online catalog and using magnifying glasses to look up entries in those micro-print Citation Indexes…heck, using most print indexes, period!

  28. I’m a reference librarian so I never had to do this myself, but I loved the white thread and special (?) knot that was used to tie together the multiple cards for a single record in the card catalog. One skill I do miss (NOT!) is loading new pin-feed paper that required one librarian to crawl under the desk or table top and push the paper up through the paper slot and a second librarian to grab the paper from the top-side of the table and feed it into the printer. And what about the job of loading the new month’s reel of InfoTrac microfilm into the reader box?

  29. When I first started as a clerk-typist, I remember using a mimeograph machine to make a monthly list of new books and putting the lists in faculty mailslots. I must say we always noticed lots of these went straight into the circular file under the mailboxes!
    Clerks filing cards above the rod; librarians dropping the cards.
    We kept a magnifying glass for BIP.
    Remember CBI?
    How about rows and rows of index tables.

  30. We still have the old “heat” pen to write call numbers on the spines of books. We even sometimes still use it but rarely. Thank goodness for printed spine labels.

  31. In the early days of automated circulation systems and periodical holding lists, we kept the information on key punch cards. Keeping those files in order was fun!

  32. I’m old enough to remember when making photocopies involved the use of messy two-part PMTs (photomechanical transfers). And don’t get me started on mimeographs.
    Does anyone remember the old Decwriters that spat out double letters if you forgot to turn off Echo?
    Does anyone catalogue books etc now using AACR rules?

  33. Using a card sorter.
    Microfilming circ transactions on Recordak machines.
    Feeding the punch card sorter.
    Repairing the Randtriever.
    Buffing the Xerox drum with Brasso.
    Swapping 300 meg disk pacs.
    Hot Glue binding print outs.
    Changing teletype ribbons.
    Repairing the leader on 8mm film.
    Cleaning LPs.
    Stoking the boiler…

  34. Some of these aren’t uniquely librarian skills, but librarians had to do them: – run and maintain the mimeograph machine (and smell those wet purple copies!) – laminate things with a little iron tool – know how to operate reel-to-reel tape players, and how to properly store the tapes – know how to feed film into a film projector, and how to feed filmstrips into their projectors – instruct students in the use of the Readers’ Guide to Periodical Literature (and keep track of the volumes). We still have microfiche & microfilm readers, but rarely do we have to instruct our students in their use. In fact, the instances are so rare that I sometimes have to re-learn before I can teach someone else! I think those will be gone in the next 10 years.

  35. It’s sad that I largely have no idea what you’re talking about in this post. (Born in 80s. Received MLS in 2005.) But I do know how to file catalog cards, more or less (shout-out to Mableton Elementary School and graduate assisting at UIUC) and those ding-dang dot matrix printers. Soon I’ll be telling the grandkids about how I used to have to connect cords from CPUs to monitors and use 5 different databases just to answer one question…

  36. Someone mentioned pay-by-the-search DIALOG usage as an obsolete librarian skill. We actually still employ this method at our academic library–occasionally.

    Are we alone in this? I’m curious to hear responses from others…

  37. Working in my college library 1985-1987, I remember doing overdues. We pushed a rod through all the check-out cards, and the ones that fell out (had been clipped at that due date) were overdue. In a job at another college library while I was going to library school, I checked in serials using the Cardex system (I think that’s what it was called).

  38. When I worked at a library for the blind, one of the most useful skills was how to splice audio tape.
    Also, key punching cards to build a database, paying for shared database space on a mainframe computer, hand lettering call numbers with a stylus, typing business letters in a very formal style, knowing forms of address for these letters, and how to use print indexes (gobs of print indexes!!)

  39. Tying together the multiple cards for catalog cards

    Having to delete ALL the cards from the card catalog when a book was removed. Or adding all the cards for new books. (Didn’t you just hate books with 4 or more subjects.)

  40. Hey, one of my colleagues who just retired made us 15-20 small wooden stands that hold two golf pencils and a wudge of scrap paper! People are still writing down call numbers here, and other miscellaneous bits of information.

    Love the flip-flop card sorter. Love even more that I don’t have to use it anymore! Dropping student-filed cards — ARRRRRGGGHH!!!

    And all hail the acoustic coupler on top of the small keyboard machine with thermal print paper. I learned the basics of database searching on one of those!

  41. Typing labels for manila folders for reserve articles. Typing check out cards for same. Typing a list of items on reserve for each class and filing them in a ring binder. Over and over and over. I LOVE e-reserves.

  42. 1. Terminals without monitors for Dialog – you had to jump up and read the greenbar paper to make sure you entered your search correctly.

    2. Mosaic

    3. Telnetting to library catalogs.

    4. Gopher and Veronica

    5. The Well (OK, it still exists. Have you used it lately?)

  43. Shellacking the backs of books to hold the hot iron affixed Dewey
    numbers to the books. Sticky shellac backed books on a hot day.
    Rows of drying newly shellacked books. Holding the white transfer tape to the book and printing the number without being burned by the hot stylus.
    How about steel erasers. A skillful worker could scrape off the top of a number without disturbing the paper beneath thus making an undetectable correction.

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