Harvard has finally entered the information age.
With last week's public introduction of the long-awaited computerized library catalog system, the University's extensive network of libraries finally caught up with the rest of the bibliographic world.
Eight years in the making, the much heralded HOLLIS (Harvard On-Line Library Information System) computer system made its public debut a week ago, as students and faculty first witnessed blinking cursors on eight terminals in Widener Library.
The fanfare for the system will be on hold until September 29, when an official opening party--balloons included--will be held in the Widener reading room. But HOLLIS has already begun to change the way Harvard students, faculty and staff conduct their research in what is the world's largest academic collection. The head of the University library system, Pforzheimer University Professor Sidney Verba, calls HOLLIS "the most important step forward for the University library in many decades."
Sleek, new computer terminals have entirely replaced the wooden card catalogs in the two principal undergraduate libraries--Lamont and Hilles--and even Widener's old-fashioned card catalogs will become more and more obsolete as all new acquisitions go directly into the new computer system. HOLLIS, which library officials describe as "absolutely state of the art," also subsumes the microfiche-based Distributable Union Catalog, which listed all library acquisitions since 1977.
But even as the libraries are making the adjustment to the computer age, visits to them are becoming unnecessary. From the comfort of a dorm room or an office, anyone with a personal computer, a modem and the appropriate software can hook into the system.
Without ever venturing to any of the 32 Harvard libraries that now offer public access to HOLLIS, computer owners will be able to compile and save listings from the 3 million records currently available on the system. And their access will only improve. Although the HOLLIS listings are far from a complete representation of Harvard's 11 million-volume collection, library officials say they plan to add 150,000 new entries each year.
University librarians say that by 1990 HOLLIS will be expanded to cover circulation information for Harvard's major libraries, including Widener, Lamont and Hilles. When that feature goes into operation, users will be able to determine not only which library has a particular book, but also whether the volume has been checked out.
For now, HOLLIS is considered by its operators to be well-adapted to Harvard's needs, which library spokesman Barbara Mitchell describes as "extremely complicated and vast." The University's research facilities span 98 separate libraries. Widener alone holds more than 3 million volumes.
Planning for HOLLIS began in December 1980. Named in part after the family that donated Hollis Hall, the system is based on a program that Harvard bought from Northwestern University and spent years customizing. Although the total cost of creating and implementing the system has not been calculated, much of the funding came from a 1983 grant of $1.2 million from the Pew Memorial Trust. HOLLIS first went on-line in 1985 when the libraries began using it to keep track of new acquisitions.
But, as the lengthy saga of the system's development attests, HOLLIS has not come of age without difficulty. After falling behind other comparable research institutions--Harvard is the second-to-last Ivy League school to implement an on-line catalog--the University now has both a multimillion dollar stake in and a lengthy time commitment to insuring the new system's success.
Yet the computer system may soon be outdated. "The basic technology is very good for the short term," says Priscilla Caplan, who heads the library office of systems development. "But nobody expects the next generation of library systems to look anything like it."
The problem, as Caplan defines it, is that the future may be as close--or as far--as the next 10 years.
Meanwhile, library officials are preparing for the short-term adjustments that will inevitably result as students and faculty begin using the new terminals. They say there is no way to predict how many people will use the newly installed computers or how the technology will affect the research habits of the community as a whole.
Lamont, which opened for the semester on Monday, has 12 public terminals, and Jon Lanham '70, the library's associate director, says he has "absolutely no idea" how many people will show up to use them. He adds the Lamont may become more popular as a reference library because of the terminals' convenient location on the library's main floor.
Although librarians have been trying out the public access system since August 1, no students have officially tested the new technology. "We haven't had any student guinea pigs," says Caplan, adding that the new few weeks will be crucial for determining how well HOLLIS matches the library system's needs.
One afternoon last week, seven of the eight Widener terminals were occupied by graduate students getting their first crack at Harvard's on-line catalog. They said that HOLLIS seemed like a good idea. "It's much faster than before," said a graduate student in East Asian Languages who refused to give his name. "But I'm not sure I can use it. There must be a lot of exciting things you can do with it."
Librarians already anticipate overcrowding. "From what I hear, there will never be enough of these things," says a reference librarian at Widener. The eight Widener terminals will eventually be supplemented by an additional 12 machines and moved to a permanent location in the area where the wooden card catalogs currently stand.
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