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Panoramas and perspectives: Karen Hunter on the *good* old days of librarianship

June 11, 2018

Karen Hunter quotation: “When access meant hours stuck at a microfilm reader, you almost wished the library didn’t own the material at all.”

In tribute to Karen Hunter, a former colleague who passed away on May 31, 2018, we would like to reshare her final Library Connect Newsletter article originally published in March 2011. The title was tongue in cheek as we had a red deletion mark through the word "good" in the print issue. Karen strongly believed that technology has always empowered librarians and libraries. In the years since this article was published, there have been more dramatic leaps in information platforms and systems, such as the tens of thousands of ScienceDirect Topic pages generated via artificial intelligence and machine learning, and APIs for text and data mining, metrics retrieval and updating institutional repositories. Though we have lost Karen, her spirit of innovation and collaboration remains.


In December 2010, Karen Hunter, Elsevier’s Senior Vice President of Global Academic & Customer Relations, retired, though she continues to consult with Elsevier on special projects. In this article she reflects upon the changes in the field of librarianship since she began her career at Cornell in 1967 as an acquisitions assistant.


Over the course of her career, Karen has been instrumental in building bridges between publishers and librarians. In 2006, she was recognized with the Association for Library Collections & Technical Services CSA/Ulrich’s Serials Librarianship Award 2006, the first given to a publisher. She currently serves on the boards of the Copyright Clearance Center, CrossRef, CLOCKSS and ORCID. At Elsevier she initiated print-to-electronic journal projects (TULIP and PEAK), led the team that developed ScienceDirect, and codirected industry initiatives in digital preservation.


It's been 44 years since I first worked in technical services at Cornell. I went from there to Baker & Taylor and in 1976 to Elsevier. My colleagues at Library Connect asked me to look back and compare between then and now. That was a big assignment as the last four-plus decades have seen incredible changes. I'm going to focus only on the looking back part and, for the most part, let you do the comparison with today.


Search. In my university days, search meant going through card catalogs and the tedious checking of the Readers’ Guide to Periodical Literature and other print indexes. Success was directly tied to thinking as the cataloger thought. As a researcher, you could and did scan the shelves adjacent to books you'd identified as relevant. At Cornell, the fun part of the card catalog was an old set of drawers of not-yet recataloged books where there was literally a subject card that said “Sex — see librarian.”


Access. Until the late 1990s, access to primary journals (later for books) meant physically being in the library, finding the volume and using it there or, if permitted, checking it out. When access meant hours stuck at a microfilm reader, you almost wished the library didn’t own the material at all. This need for physical access explained the most likely location of the main library — on central, prime campus real estate. When we recently asked young science faculty when they were last in the library, no one could even remember.


Library as place. Libraries were, therefore, the place you went to get information and to work with that information in quiet isolation. Students couldn’t get coffee or work with groups of friends, which today is probably as or more valuable than solitary research.


The librarian’s role. As a young technical services librarian, I honestly never thought about how users viewed us. I was more focused on learning a series of jobs from Acquisitions to Serials, Cataloging, and finally Gift & Exchange. I left Cornell too early — too far down in the hierarchy — to really know how faculty viewed librarians. From my limited perspective, we were seen as the people who bought the things they wanted, period.


Funding. I had the luxury of experiencing library acquisitions when funding was not a major issue. We didn't buy everything, but with more than a dozen special libraries supplementing the graduate and undergraduate libraries, multiple subscriptions were common. If the user had to come to the library to have access, then it was important to make it convenient.


As I move into a consultancy role with Elsevier, I treasure what we have today. The 1960s and 1970s were not “the good old days.” We have so much more now that there is really no comparison. Desktop access to the world’s published literature and an increasing number of unique manuscript collections must be at the top of today’s advantages. But it certainly doesn’t stop there. Virtually every day I access the Internet on my BlackBerry to satisfy my curiosity about some point of trivia — instant gratification in a way unimaginable 40 years ago. And let’s not forget the changes that happened so long ago in those four decades to be absolutely (and rightly) taken for granted: personal computers, word processing, email and, more recently, streaming media. The way we live day-to-day now is simply dramatically different and all the better for it.