I Wish I Had Been A Librarian

by James Wallace Harris, 12/8/22

I almost became a librarian. This was a long time ago. What kept me from that career was having to move to another city to get an MLS degree. Susan and I had been married for a few years, and we didn’t want to move. I worked in the Periodicals Department at Memphis State University (now the University of Memphis). I was a Periodicals clerk, which was an hourly position. I was working on my English degree and taking some undergraduate courses in library science in a program designed to produce librarians for K-12 schools. I didn’t want to work in a school, but at a university, and most universities require a Master’s of Library Science. In fact, my university required an MLS to get the job, but a second master’s in a useful subject to aid in working in a library to keep the job. This was also true of the public library at the time. And even with two master’s degrees, the pay would never be much, but I’d work in the environment I loved best.

Instead, I took a job at the College of Education setting up their network and creating a student database system to track student teaching experience. I worked there for the rest of my life, but I’ve always wished I had gotten that MLS degree and spent my 9-to-5 life in a library. When I was young I worked at the Memphis Public Library for a few months, and later at the university library for six years. I love periodicals. And I love how magazines have become available on the internet as digital scans. I have quite a collection of them. I believe my compulsive acquisition of books and magazines is caused by a gene for librarianship.

Reading Index, A History of the: A Bookish Adventure From Medieval Manuscripts to the Digital Age by Dennis Duncan has brought back my desire to work in a library. I’m not sure I can recommend this book to everyone, but if you love books and libraries it might be for you. Its subject is somewhat esoteric. Did you know that the idea of alphabetizing had to be invented? That made me wonder who came up with the idea that letters of the alphabet should have an order? Duncan didn’t cover that.

Books haven’t always been like the books we read today. When books were scrolls they didn’t have covers or even titles. A book might be written over several scrolls of paper, so if you had a bunch of scrolls, finding the one you wanted, and the part you wanted to read, could be very difficult. So early librarians started tying the scrolls together and putting them in bins. Then they learned to glue little tags of paper to the end of scrolls to identify what was in the scroll. That’s the beginning of the index. As I said, this book won’t be for everyone, but if you have the library gene it might.

What most people think of as an index, that section of the book at the back with a list of keywords and page numbers wasn’t invented right away either. When books began to be printed people got the idea of helping people find specific places in them, and the index as we know it was born. At first, the index was published separately. Then when they started being published with the book they were put in the front. It took centuries before they standardized on placing the index in the back of the book.

David Duncan’s book is mostly an amusing look at all this. He was especially delighted by discovering what I call index wars. For example, Richard Bently satirized a 1695 book by Charles Boyle by publishing an index that ridiculed Boyle’s book by how he indexed the keywords. This led to all kinds of indexing shenanigans including dirty politics. Duncan found quite of bit of indexing history in the line, “Let no damned Tory index my History!” by Whig historian Laurence Echard whose three-volume History of England was indexed by Tory sympathizer John Oldmixon.

Another bit of off-the-road history Duncan discovered was that very scholarly accused the lesser scholarly that their poor thoughts were due to reading just the index rather than the whole book when composing their writing. That’s because indexers use to put more information into their indexes.

Duncan shows many photographs of the fine art of indexing satire but it’s hard to read them because they were being written at a time before standardized spelling. Luckily he translates historical English into modern English. And the historical humor has become very dry. You’ve got to enjoy a good three-hundred-year-old in-joke to really appreciate this book, but Duncan is good at explaining them. Sometimes the humor was as crude as the silliest of Saturday Night Live skits.

Duncan eventually works his history through the centuries up until the age of Google and online indexes. This is where I wished I had worked, using computers to organize information, periodicals, and libraries. In a way, our website Classics of Science Fiction is a kind of index. We index the popularity of science fiction short stories and novels. I’m all the time thinking of things I’d like to put into databases that deal with books and magazines. Reading Duncan’s book showed me there have been bookworms with the same kind of bibliographic urges for thousands of years.

But Index, A History of the also inspired two very specific librarian-type desires. The first was triggered by Duncan’s coverage of The Spectator, a very influential publication.

Many of the journals of the eighteenth century fall into this intermediary zone, and none more so than the Spectator. Founded in 1711 – and no direct relation of modern magazine of the same name – the Spectator was a cheap, daily, single-sheet paper that featured brief essays on literature, philosophy or whatever took its writers’ fancies. Its editors were Richard Steele and Joseph Addison (whom we met in the last chapter having his Italian travelogue mauled by ironic indexers), and, although it ran only for a couple of years, it was immensely popular. The Spectator started off in a print run of 555 copies; by its tenth issue, this had ballooned to 3,000. This, however, was only a fraction of the true readership. The editors claimed that there were twenty readers to every copy, and deemed that even this was a ‘modest Computation’. The Spectator was a paper designed for the emerging public sphere, a conversation piece to be read at ‘Clubs and Assemblies, at Tea-tables, and in Coffee-Houses’.2 A paper to be read and passed on. 

What’s more, the Spectator was only the best known in a long list of similar sheets. The Tatler, the Free-Thinker, the Examiner, the Guardian, the Plain Dealer, the Flying Post – papers like these were able to capitalize on a perfect storm of rising literacy rates, the emergence of coffee-house culture, the relaxation of formerly strict printing laws, and a growing middle-class with enough leisure time to read. The eighteenth century was gearing up to be what scholars now call the age of print saturation.3 That term saturation has some interesting suggestions. Certainly, it implies excess – too much to read – but also something else: too much to keep hold of, a new disposability of printed matter. Our poor, abused quire of paper was born at the wrong time. Flicking through original copies of the Spectator preserved in the British Library, one certainly sees the signs of coffee-house use. You won’t find stains like this in a Gutenberg Bible. And yet the essays are among the finest in English: wryly elegant, impeccably learned. If you had bought the paper for self-improvement you might well want to come back to it. 

And so it was that the news-sheets found themselves being republished, almost immediately, in book form. These editions, appearing within months of their broadsheet originals, anticipated how the kind of reader who would want the full run of the Spectator would want to use it: not simply as a single sheet – a single thought – for a few minutes’ entertainment with one’s coffee, but as an archive of ideas that one might return to. Benjamin Franklin, for example, describes coming across a collected edition of the Spectator as a boy and reading it ‘over and over’, jotting down notes from it and trying to imitate its style in his own writing.4 The movement from coffee-table to bookshelf implies a different mode of reading, one of reference, reuse, of finding the thought, the phrase, the image, and bringing it into the light again. If the Spectator was to be a book it would need an index. 

The indexes to the early volumes of the Spectator, along with those of its older sister the Tatler, are a joy in themselves, full of the same ranging, generous wit as the essays they serve. Rifling through them, a century later, Leigh Hunt would compare them to ‘jolly fellows bringing burgundy out of a cellar’, giving us ‘a taste of the quintessence of [the papers’] humour’.5 Who, indeed, would not want to sample more after reading a tantalizing entry like ‘Gigglers in Church, reproved, 158’ or ‘Grinning: A Grinning Prize, 137’ or ‘Wine, not proper to be drunk by everyone that can swallow, 140’. The Tatler, meanwhile, offers us ‘Evergreen, Anthony, his collection of fig-leaves for the ladies, 100’, or ‘Love of enemies, not constitutional, 20’, or ‘Machines, modern free thinkers are such, 130’. Elsewhere, two entries run on together, oblivious to the strictures of alphabetical order: 

     Dull Fellows, who, 43 
     Naturally turn their Heads to Politics or Poetry, ibid. 

There is something at once both useless and compelling about these indexes. Is ‘Dull Fellows’, listed under the ds, really a helpful headword? Of course not. But it catches our attention, makes us want to find out more. This is as much about performance as about quick reference. Each entry is a little advertisement for the essay it points to, a sample of the wit we will find there. The Tatler and Spectator indexes belong to the same moment as the satirical indexes we saw in the last chapter, but unlike William King’s work there is nothing cruel or pointed about them. Instead, they are zany, absurd, light. ‘Let anyone read [them],’ declares Leigh Hunt, ‘and then call an index a dry thing if he can.’ The index has made itself at home in the journals of the early eighteenth century, adapting to suit their manners, their tone. Moreover, it signals the elevation of these essays produced at a gallop for the daily coffee-house sheet to something more durable, to a format that connotes value, perhaps even status. At the midpoint of the second decade of the eighteenth century, the index is primed to offer the same sheen to other genres, to epic poetry, to drama, to the emerging form of the novel. And yet, we know how this story ends. In the twenty-first century novels do not have indexes. Nor do plays. Poetry books are indexed by first line, not by subject. Why, then, was the index to fiction a short-lived phenomenon? Why did it not take? To shed some light on this question, let us turn briefly to two literary figures from the late nineteenth century, both still indexing novels long after the embers had died down on that particular experiment. What can these latecomers tell us about the problems of indexing when it comes to works of the imagination?

Duncan, Dennis. Index, A History of the: A Bookish Adventure from Medieval Manuscripts to the Digital Age (pp. 173-177). W. W. Norton & Company. Kindle Edition. 

Reading about The Spectator makes me wish I was sitting in a library compiling information from old magazines. Of course, this is partially what Duncan has done by writing his book. By the way, The Spectator can be read online at Project Gutenberg.

Another example of how Index, A History of inspires my bookish ways is when Duncan wrote about Sherlock Holmes, and how Holmes built a massive index to help him be a detective. Did Doyle/Holmes know about the zettlekasten method? Just reading this bit of Sherlock Holmes history makes me want to do an annotation of a Sherlock Holmes story to find all the hidden clues — not to solve the crime, but to see how Arthur Conan Doyle created his characters and stories. I don’t remember ever getting excited about Holmes keeping an index when I read some of the Sherlock Holmes short stories. I need to go reread them.

Some people define themselves by exotic travel, others by the gourmet meals they consume, but I find purpose in connecting words in books to words in other books. Just note the interesting details quoted from the story and what Duncan made of them.

‘Kindly look her up in my index, Doctor,’ murmured Holmes, without opening his eyes. For many years he had adopted a system of docketing all paragraphs concerning men and things, so that it was difficult to name a subject or a person on which he could not at once furnish information. In this case I found her biography sandwiched between that of a Hebrew Rabbi and a staff commander who had written a monograph upon the deep sea fishes. 

The year is 1891, the story ‘A Scandal in Bohemia’, and the person Holmes is searching for, sandwiched between the rabbi and the amateur marine biologist, is Irene Adler, opera singer, adventuress and lover of the man now standing in Holmes’ drawing room, one Wilhelm Gottsreich Sigismond von Ormstein, Grand Duke of Cassel-Felstein and hereditary King of Bohemia. The tale will find Holmes outsmarted and chastened by Adler. ‘Beaten by a woman’s wit,’ as Watson puts it. It begins, however, with Holmes coolly in control, seated in his armchair and not deigning to open his eyes, not even for a grand duke. 

It is probably no surprise that Sherlock Holmes should be an indexer. His schtick, after all, his superpower, is his encyclopedic learning, the world’s arcana: a human Google, or a walking Notes and Queries. But that would be preposterous. Besides, from the very first adventure, A Study in Scarlet, we have been informed that, in Watson’s appraisal, Holmes’ general knowledge is severely limited: ‘Knowledge of literature – nil; Philosophy – nil; Astronomy – nil; Politics – feeble . . .’ So occasionally Conan Doyle offers us a glimpse behind the curtain, a look at the system which allows Holmes his universal recall. Every now and again we see him pruning and tending his index, ‘arranging and indexing some of his recent materials’, or ‘sat moodily at one side of the fire, cross-indexing his records of crime’. It is, naturally, an alphabetical system, with a ‘great index volume’ for each letter of the alphabet. When he wants to check something on, say, vampires, he is, characteristically, too lazy to get up himself: ‘Make a long arm, Watson, and see what V has to say.’ As a line of dialogue, incidentally, isn’t this a minor masterpiece of characterization? The asymmetry of the pair’s relationship is smoothed over with chummy slang: make a long arm. Watson, the gopher, will take the book down from the shelf, but he will not be the one to see what V has to say; Holmes, of course, will do the reading, balancing the book on his knee and gazing ‘slowly and lovingly over the record of old cases, mixed with the accumulated information of a lifetime’: 

‘Voyage of the Gloria Scott’, he read. ‘That was a bad business. I have some recollection that you made a record of it, Watson, though I was unable to congratulate you upon the result. Victor Lynch, the forger. Venomous lizard or gila. Remarkable case, that! Vittoria, the circus belle. Vanderbilt and the Yeggman. Vipers. Vigor, the Hammersmith wonder.’ 

‘Good old index,’ he purrs. ‘You can’t beat it.’ The index – his index, with its smattering of everything – is the source of his mastery. 

Holmes’ alphabetical volumes represent the index unbound, not confined to a single work but looking outwards, docketing anything that might be noteworthy. It is by no means a new idea; Robert Grosseteste was practising something similar six-and-a-half centuries previously. In the Victorian period, however, it is taken up with a new intensity. Co-ordinated, resource heavy: the universal index is becoming industrialized. Looking closely at Holmes’ index, there is something charmingly, inescapably homespun about it. Victor Lynch, venomous lizard, Vittoria the circus belle: this is a rattlebag of headers: patchy, piecemeal. Like Grosseteste’s Tabula, Holmes’ index brings together the collected readings and experiences of a single, albeit extraordinary, figure – the index as personal history. But Holmes, in his way, represents the last of a kind. Not long after ‘A Scandal in Bohemia’ first appeared in the Strand Magazine, Holmes would come to be indexed himself, a recurring entry in the annual Index to Periodicals, which trawled the year’s papers, magazines and journals, keeping a record of every article. The efforts of even a Holmes or a Grosseteste appear paltry alongside a venture of this scale, available to anyone with access to a subscribing library. But how to bring such a thing into existence? That will be a three-pipe problem.

Duncan, Dennis. Index, A History of the: A Bookish Adventure from Medieval Manuscripts to the Digital Age (pp. 203-205). W. W. Norton & Company. Kindle Edition. 

JWH

Hopes, Dreams, and Bullshit

by James Wallace Harris, 2/2/21

Rereading the 1984 book Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution by Steven Levy unearthed long suppressed feelings and ambitions that first emerged in my personality back in the 1960s and 1970s. When I first read Hackers in 1985 it rekindled those formative emotions and desires then as well. I’ll start my seventies this year and I have to wonder when do hopes that I formed in my teens finally fade away? When can I just give up and be here now? When do I stop trying to constantly be who I was? Why don’t hopes have expirations dates? Why are these books so exciting after all these years?

I remember four years ago triggering these same emotions and ambitions when I reread The Soul of a New Machine by Tracy Kidder. I tried to write about what I felt, but those words don’t capture what I’m trying to say now. One thing about growing older, at least for me, is seeking clarity about my time in reality. Before I die, or my mind fades away, I want eliminate all the bullshit barnacles that encrusts my soul.

My current theory is we acquire our personal dreams and desires from pop culture and subcultures. During my lifetime I’ve belonged to many subcultures, but the two I loved most are science fiction and computers. Both current forms of those subcultures have long past me by, but their initial seduction have left subprograms running within my mind that never stop. Why was I able to deprogram myself of childhood religious programming, but I’ve never been able to escape that cultural programming acquired from age 12-22?

You’d think we’d forget old beliefs as we acquired new insights. Of course, I’m generalizing, assuming all people are the same. Maybe other people do that, but I don’t. Why can’t we emotionally be like historians who rewrite history with new discovers. For example, after rereading Hackers I read A People’s History of Computing in the United States (2018) by Joy Lisi Rankin. Basically, Rankin is saying, hold on there Steven Levy, your history of computer pioneers from MIT and Silicon Valley leave out a lot of middle America computer pioneers. Her book is reshaping my sense of computer history I got from Hackers. Why don’t I do the same things with my personal history?

This is not the book review I sat down to write. I might try again, but let’s go with the flow. These books hit the bullseye of my old computer ambitions. Over the past year I’ve been watching a lot of YouTube videos about 8-bit computers, especially those from The 8-Bit Guy. David Murray essentially has traveled back in time to work on computers at the point where Hackers ends in 1984. Many other YouTubers have done this too. I’ve wondered if the solution to my problem with all these old hopes and desires is to return to a past point in time and start over. I realize at this moment, that’s exactly what I’ve done with science fiction. I’m reading and collecting what I loved best from 1965-1975. That’s kind of weird when you think about it. But maybe it’s a natural aspect of aging too.

However, I also tell myself I should jettison my past like they were my first and second rocket stages and seek orbit for what I could be in 2021. But could that be me bullshitting myself that I’m not too old to learn new tricks. Of course, maybe one way not to stir up old emotions and desires is to stop consuming old pop culture. Does my library of old books, magazines, movies, and TV shows keep those old subprograms going? Actually, yes.

I have a friend, Anne, who lives so in the present that she hates the past, and even throws away old photographs and mementos when she finds them. I also live in the present by reading books published in 2020 and magazines that are February 2021 current. If I tossed out my old library and read only new books and magazines I would become a different person. I could become a fast nimble speedboat. But because I loved old pop culture, and can’t let go of old ambitions, magazines, and books, I feel the past I carry around has grown to the size of the Titanic. (I wish I had a photo of a guy in a rowboat towing the Titanic on a rope to put right here.)

The current nonfiction books and science fiction magazines I’m reading are about politics, climate change, and all the other dark clouds the horizon of this century. (No wonder I want to return to last century.) If I only read new books and magazines I’d completely reshape my present personality. Reading these three computer histories rekindles the futures I wanted back in the 1970s and 1980s, and they were tremendously more appealing than the futures I envision now. The people profiled in those books had such wonderful dreams about what computers would bring to the 21st century. And their dreams came true beyond anything they imagined or hoped. Yet, I wonder if they could see the downside of their creations, would they have done anything different? And isn’t that what I’m doing now by rereading these old books, second guessing my past decisions?

One of the reasons I can’t let the past go is it feels unfinished. I didn’t get to consume all the pop culture I wanted back then, satisfy all my wants, or achieve all my ambitions. But having lived in the future, it also feels like we took so many wrong turns. I can’t help but want to go back and finish what I started and even try different paths.

There is a whole lot more I want to say about Hackers, but this essay has already gotten too long for chiseling on this stone. Hopefully to be continued on another rock.

JWH

Hoarding Creative Works

by James Wallace Harris, Saturday, September 26, 2020

A hoarder of creative work is called a collector, and a collection of creative works is called a library. That’s if we’re using polite terminology. I have stacks and shelves of books, music, TV shows, and movies that I hoard. I don’t know if I’m a librarian of my collections, or a hoarder of my crap.

It’s a strange kind of possessiveness. My problem is I don’t have enough shelves for all my libraries, so me and my piles of stuff is looking a lot more like your garden variety hoarder of junk.

The other day I decided to reduce the number of DVD/BD discs that Susan and I own down to what would fit into the bookcase we designated as our TV/Movie Library. It was either that or buy another bookcase, and getting another bookcase would mean taking wallspace from something else in our junked up house, and that would only cause anguish over giving something else away.

I figure it’s time to be practical about my hoard of creative works. I’ve got too many books, magazines, LPs, CDs, DVDs, and Blu-ray discs. And that’s not even considering the thousands of digital items I own. I know that. I’ve always known that – but why can’t I remember that? Especially like this Tuesday when I was at the used bookstore buying seven large hardbacks I felt for sure I must read but know I never will. Jesus, I’m crazy, or what?

What psychological programming makes me want to possess (collect) so much? Many of my friends when they got a Kindle gave their books to the Friends of the Library. And when they embraced iTunes or Spotify gave away their albums to their kids. And when Netflix came along donated their VHS tapes and DVDs to Goodwill. I didn’t. I went to the Friends of Library book sales and Goodwill and bought all their crap.

We often blame our present hangups on our upbringing, and I guess there might be a case for that here too. When I grew up you got two chances at seeing a TV show. When it premiered in the main season and then again as a rerun in the summer. Evidently the trauma of believing I’d never again see a favorite episode again burned something deep inside of me. That childhood trauma caused me to mass consume VHS tapes and DVDs when they were invented.

Movies used come to town, and if you missed them you’d have to wait years to catch it on TV. Music was on the radio and you had to wait a couple hours for that catchy tune come around again. It’s probably why they only had 40 songs in rotation. It was agony on Golden Oldie Weekends hoping to hear an ancient rock ‘n’ roll hit from the 1950s. Books were something you got at the library that you took back in seven days, and magazines were something you threw away on cleaning day. Creative works were fleeting back then.

When I started earning money I bought my favorite books and albums. At first it wasn’t many. When the VCR came on the market it became possible to save TV shows or buy movies. Susan and I spent $800 on our first video recorder at a time when that was way more money than we could afford. Then came DVDs, and even better, Blu-ray discs. For years Blockbuster Video filled that need to watch what we wanted when we wanted – unless it was checked out. Then we realized we had to own our favorite flicks in case the pressure to see a movie immediately took ahold of us. (Actually, I can’t ever remember that happening.)

Over the decades it became possible to own all the creative works I loved. However, it’s taken me decades to realize that the desire to consume creative works immediately is an unhealthy trait I should try to control.

And even owning some creative works would have been fine if I had been selective about what I acquired. A carefully curated collection of all-time best loved works of art that I was most identified with would have been manageable. It wouldn’t be hoarding, just defining my identity. But something inside me wants to keep every creative work I ever had a momentary infatuation. (I think that might be related to my obsession with memory too. It bugs the crap out of me that I forget anything, and owning a creative work is like a physical memory.)

I guess I feel a need to own everything I love in case I want to relive that initial encounter – but is that true? Because of the internet, there’s been a new paradigm of instant access to creative works online. When I was cleaning out my DVDs yesterday I realized that many of the movies I owned are always available, either from a streaming service like Netflix, or by renting them for far less than the cost of buying (even if I rented them 2-4 times). And since I mostly watched old movies on TCM because I actually prefer the randomness of it’s offering, many of my most loved old movies do appear one or more times during the year, giving me plenty of times to re-watch a film. For those movies I don’t have instant access through checking Just Watch, with a little patience they would show up again on TCM.

I was able to cull over a hundred discs I could part with without too much anguish. However, I still had hundreds that I felt the need to own. Where does that psychological drive come from? What kind of anxiety do I have if I’m afraid I won’t be able to see a TV show or movie when get the urge?

Years ago I calculated I’d save tons of money if I bought books at full price on Amazon whenever I actually was ready to read them over the cost of collecting books at bargain prices thinking I’d read them someday. I’ve bought thousands of books I’ve never read simply because I believed I’d read them someday. Some of those books have been waiting forty years to get the attention of my eyes.

I’ve written essays like this one before trying to talk myself out of hoarding creative works. I shouldn’t need a psychiatrist to figure out I have a hoarding gene that I need to manage. At least my bedroom doesn’t look like this:

Luckily I have another gene that battles with my hoarding gene, a Marie Kondo gene. I also like to declutter and give away junk. If I still owned every creative work I once bought everyone room of my house would look like the photo above. I’m not exaggerating.

I have a Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde personality but it’s a battle between my KonMari/Hoarders natural tendencies. I never can come to terms that my need to read books has no relationship to my need to buy books. I write these essays time and time again hoping they will reprogram my brain. They are my way of psychoanalyzing myself but I never get to a behavioral breakthrough. I’m a crappy at self-shrinking, or would that be an auto-analyst?

JWH

Unraveling a Loose Thread of History Found in a 1956 Issue of Galaxy Science Fiction

by James Wallace Harris, Monday, September 16, 2019

This morning I was flipping through some old issues of Galaxy Science Fiction I had bought on eBay and ran across this ad in the October 1956 issue:

Geniac - Galaxy 1956-10

At first, I flipped right by it. Then in the next issue I picked up, the December 1956 issue, I found this ad:

Geniac - Galaxy 1956-12

This one promised a whole lot more. Could this be for real? Computes, plays games, composes music? I don’t ever remember reading about home computers existing this early. I thought computer kits were something from the 1970s. This December ad promised a new improved 1957 model, and for only $19.95. In 1956, $19.95 was some serious money for a kid. It would probably be hundreds of dollars in today’s money. And was this a genuine computer, or was it some kind of trick, like those X-Ray glasses advertised in the back of comic books?

First stop: Wikipedia.

Geniac was an educational toy billed as a "computer" designed and marketed by Edmund Berkeley, with Oliver Garfield from 1955 to 1958, but with Garfield continuing without Berkeley through the 1960s. The name stood for "Genius Almost-automatic Computer" but suggests a portmanteau of genius and ENIAC (the first fully electronic general-purpose computer).

Operation
Basically a rotary switch construction set, the Geniac contained six perforated masonite disks, into the back of which brass jumpers could be inserted. The jumpers made electrical connections between slotted brass bolt heads sitting out from the similarly perforated masonite back panel. To the bolts were attached wires behind the panel. The circuit comprised a battery, such wires from it to, and between, switch positions, wires from the switches to indicator flashlight bulbs set along the panel's middle, and return wires to the battery to complete the circuit.

With this basic setup, Geniac could use combinational logic only, its outputs depending entirely on inputs manually set. It had no active elements at all – no relays, tubes, or transistors – to allow a machine state to automatically influence subsequent states. Thus, Geniac didn't have memory and couldn't solve problems using sequential logic. All sequencing was performed manually by the operator, sometimes following fairly complicated printed directions (turn this wheel in this direction if this light lights, etc.)

The main instruction book, as well as a supplementary book of wiring diagrams, gave jumper positions and wiring diagrams for building a number of "machines," which could realize fairly complicated Boolean equations. A copy of Claude Shannon's groundbreaking thesis in the subject, A Symbolic Analysis of Relay and Switching Circuits, was also included.

Okay, so it was real! But in 1956? In the mid-fifties, commercial computers were just beginning to be rolled out to businesses. In 1957 American audiences got to see a humorous look at computers in the film Desk Set with Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn. Rumors of computers produced a fear that the librarians would lose their jobs, but ultimately humans prevailed. I expect most Americans in 1957 had never seen a computer and only knew about them from funny cartoons in magazines and newspapers. Geniac came out before Sputnik which ignited a fear that American youths weren’t being educated in science. Was there a desire by kids that early in the 1950s to know about computers?

Here is a History of Computer timeline that shows the Geniac for 1955. And here’s an article about the history of computers that played NIM games, which includes the Geniac.

Scientific American 1950-11The main designer of Geniac appears to be Edmund Berkeley. He wrote an early book about computers in 1949, Giant Brains, or Machines That Think. Berkeley was also written about in Edmund Berkeley and the Social Responsibility of Computer Professionals by Bernedette Long. If you follow that link she writes about his influence with Geniac. I’m awful tempted to buy the Kindle edition. He also designed what some people call the first personal computer, Simon. Simon appeared as 13 how-to articles that began running in Radio-Electronics magazine in October 1950. (All 13 parts can be read online here.) It would have cost around $600 to build and had very limited features with only 2-bits of memory. Berkeley wrote the article “Simple Simon” for the November 1950 issues of Scientific American.

Electronics was a big tech hobby back then and had been since the early days of the radio in the 1910s. Looking at the Geniac ad carefully though showed it wasn’t an electronics kit, but merely electrical. It might contain 400 parts, but they were wires, light bulbs, batteries, nuts, and little contacts. It seems designed to set up simple logic programs. How much could a kid do with one? YouTube to the rescue:

And this film, which features a later model from the 1960s called a Brainiac:

This brings up even more questions. Did kids really play with them? Where they inspired to study computers and become computer programmers and engineers? Were there any famous computer pioneers that started with a Geniac or Brainiac? Could Steve Wozniak or Bill Gates have played with one? Of course, those two might have been too young for this era.

The kit seemed aimed at kids, but it would have required a great deal of work and patience to produce any results. Actually putting one together and doing any of the example projects would have been very educational.

David Vanderschel describes his Geniac computer from 1956. He says an IBM 1620 was the first real computer he encountered in 1962. That was the first computer I programmed on in 1971 at computer school using FORTRAN.

Hackaday had a post last month about the Geniac claiming that Mike Gardi credits his professional success in software development to educational logic games like the Geniac. Gardi created a replica of a Geniac and has links to the original documentation. This 1955 manual had instructions for a couple dozen projects. Gardi said:

Technically GENIAC was a collection of configurable N-pole by N-throw rotary switches, which could be set up to cascaded and thus perform logical functions. As a result GENIAC could use combinational logic only, its outputs depending entirely on inputs manually set. However, projects outlined in the manual, which started with basic logic circuits, ultimately progressed to such things as a NIM machine and TIC-TAC-TOE machine.

I did find a Geniac on eBay that has a $99.99 buy it now price. There’s a Brainiac for sale for $349! That’s more than I’d want to spend. The Brainiac is in great shape though. It’s probably the one from the film above.

The more I Googled, the more intrigued I became about the impact of the Geniac computer. Is this how historians get sucked into writing books? I checked a couple books on the history of personal computers I own, but neither mention Geniac or Edmund Berkeley. If you search Google for the first personal computer you usually get the MITS Altair 8800. Maybe that’s not true. Maybe I could write a whole history book about home computers before 1975.

Additional Reading:

Update:

I went to my public library and looked through the books about the history of computing. I found no mentions of Geniac or Edmund Berkeley. I then checked The Reader’s Guide to Periodical Literature for the years 1950-1960. I found no references to Geniac and only a handful of articles by Berkeley. His articles did sound interesting:

  • “Robots for Fun” Life, 173-74+, March 19, 1956
  • “Relations Between Symbolic Logic and Large-Scale Calculating Machines” Science, 395-399, October 6, 1950
  • “Simple Simon” Scientific American, 40-43, November 1950
  • “Tomorrow’s Thinking Machines” Science Digest, 52-57, January 1950
  • “2150 A.D. Preview of the Robotic Age” New York Times, 19, November 19, 1950
  • “Robot Psychoanalyst” Newsweek, 58, December 12, 1949
  • “Algebra and States and Events” Science Monthly, 332-342, April 1954
  • “We Are Safer Than We Think” New York Times, 11, July 29, 1951

An amusing thing happened at the library. I kept asking the librarians where the Reader’s Guide to Periodical Literature was located. They didn’t know. Finally, they asked a very old librarian and she found it for me. She then came back with the younger librarians, they wanted to see it too. I had told them when I was young every kid was taught to begin their library research with that classic index.

JWH

 

Volunteer Librarians

by James Wallace Harris, Saturday, March 9, 2019

A couple weeks ago I went with my friends Mike and Betsy to a book signing for The Watch on the Fencepost (a pleasant cozy mystery) by Kay DiBianca. Mike had worked with Kay for years and I went along because this was Kay’s first book, written after she retired, something I’ve always wanted to do. Kay introduced Mike and me to her audience as former librarians, suggesting we might be experts on books. Mike and I worked in a university library back in the 1980s, but as clerks, not librarians. At the time, we both wanted to become librarians, but it required moving out of town to get a Master’s of Library Science degree, something hard to do since we both had wives with jobs too. To become a librarian where we worked required an MLS to get the job and then another master’s in a useful subject area to keep it.

Mike and I were never qualified to call ourselves librarians so we’re always embarrassed when that title was bestowed on us. We both left the library to go into computers, but I think we each wished we had become librarians. Now that we’re retired I’ve noticed that many of our hobbies require librarian-like skills. I’m starting to think of ourselves and others that share our hobbies as volunteer librarians.

I haven’t worked in a library for almost four decades, but back then they had several main departments:

  • Acquisitions
  • Cataloging
  • Circulation
  • Reference
  • Periodicals
  • Binding & Repairs
  • Government Documents
  • Special Collections

My new hobby of scanning old science fiction fanzines for the Internet Archive involves acquisitions, cataloging, periodicals, repair, and special collection skills. Mike and I’s project for the Classics of Science Fiction involves reference skills like indexing, making rules for the title and author entries, using online databases, and linking to standardized catalogs. Each of us collects books and periodicals. Mike is much better at cataloging his collection in the GoodReads database. Mike would have made a great librarian because he is so extremely detailed oriented.

I think of my scanning project as collecting and preserving documents that are disappearing. There’s a very librarian-like appeal to it. Mike and I used to work with cataloging periodicals using OCLC and Mark II records. I wonder if these are still in use today? (I just checked and they are.) Now that we’re building our own databases of records we’re concerned about standards and interoperability with other database systems. We’re designing our system so titles and authors entries follow exact rules. Like libraries using the OCLC system, we’ve decided to piggyback our efforts on a more universal system, which is the Internet Science Fiction Database (ISFDB.org). ISFDB.org is a vast worldwide effort of volunteer librarians indexing and cataloging all books and periodicals related to science fiction and fantasy.

We don’t want to reinvent the wheel. It’s better to join larger efforts. That’s why I’m noticing volunteer librarians building what I believe will one day become the Library of Planet Earth. Right now countless systems, collections, databases, indexes, bibliographies, are springing up on the internet, usually by groups with special interests. They seldom work together, but someday they will. For example, I think it’s very logical that Wikipedia, ISFDB.org, WorldCat, Internet Archive, and other separate systems start cross-referencing everything about science fiction. Everything I upload to the Internet Archive is already cataloged in ISFDB and has entries in Wikipedia. I can already see that Wikipedia will become the Card Catalog of the emerging Planet Earth Library.

Other scanners preserving pulp magazines use Galactic Central which works to index all stories in pulp magazines and related periodicals. It overlaps with science fiction but covers other genres. Sometimes I wish Galactic Central had features of ISFDB, and sometimes I wish ISFDB had features of Galactic Central. Before computers, lone bibliographers compiled lists and 3×5 card stacks by hand and then published them in printed indexes that had to be annually updated. Now all their work is being done by volunteer teams that build huge datasets in the cloud that update in real-time. Eventually, I see these systems merging into super-systems. For example, one day there will be one database that catalogs every short story ever published.

If you pay attention to the information you get on the internet, you’ll start noticing the volunteer librarians. Wikipedia is both volunteer encyclopedists and volunteer librarians. If you’ve ever used Discogs or MusicStack or All Music then you’ve seen the work of volunteer music librarians. Every subject hobby has them.

Some people just have a natural urge to collect, catalog, preserve, index, and organize diverse kinds of recorded knowledge. It’s a kind of hoarding of historical artifacts. We don’t want civilization to Marie Kondo itself and throw out all the tidbits of knowledge that keep piling up. In a way, volunteer librarians are like the dream mechanism in our heads at night that decides which memories are worth keeping. We can’t save everything, but we can try.

Volunteer librarians don’t need library science degrees, just a strong urge to collect,  catalog, and preserve.

JWH

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