Ingenious librarians

A group of 1970s campus librarians foresaw our world of distributed knowledge and research, and designed search tools for it

By Monica Westin, June 5, 2023

Monica Westin is a librarian with a background in academic libraries and scholarly publishing. She works on copyright policy at Google and lectures in the MSc Information Science programme at City, University of London.

Syracuse University’s SUPARS system was developed by Pauline Atherton as an early antecedent of what we might today call ‘search’. Photo courtesy Syracuse University Libraries Special Collections

Throughout an unusually sunny Fall in 1970, hundreds of students and faculty at Syracuse University sat one at a time before a printing computer terminal (similar to an electric typewriter) connected to an IBM 360 mainframe located across campus in New York state.

Almost none of them had ever used a computer before, let alone a computer-based information retrieval system. Their hands trembled as they touched the keyboard; several later reported that they had been afraid of breaking the entire system as they typed.

The participants were performing their first online searches, entering carefully chosen words to find relevant psychology abstracts in a brand-new database. They typed one key term or instruction per line, like ‘Motivation’ in line 1, ‘Esteem’ in line 2, and ‘L1 and L2’ in line 3 in order to search for papers that included both terms.

After running the query, the terminal produced a printout indicating how many documents matched each search; users could then narrow down or expand that search before generating a list of article citations. Many users burst into laughter upon seeing the response from a computer so far away.

Editor’s Note: Read more, see link below for original item…

P.s. Wonder if they were using really using DIALOG? 🙂