Computer Punch Cards, Libraries & History

A few days ago, Awful Library Books featured a book on Purchasing and EDP [Electronic Data Processing] from 1966. It features a punch card on the front cover. I decided to learn more about punch card technology by reading the Wikipedia page about it, since I never had the pleasure of using the technology. Originally used to control textile looms in the 18th and 19th centuries, punched cards were used for data processing starting the the 1890s (for the U.S. Census) and declining since the 1970s. According to George Dyson in Wired Magazine, some companies are still using punch card technology for some of their data and control processes. (Thanks to Wikipeda for the external link to that article.)

I also followed a link from the Wikipedia article to Steven Lubar’s “’Do Not Fold, Spindle or Mutilate’: A Cultural History of the Punch Card” (Journal of American Culture, 15:4 [Winter 1992]: 43-55). After a brief description of the history of punch cards, he states that,

Punch cards became not only a symbol for the computer, … but a symbol of alienation. They stood for abstraction, oversimplification and dehumanization.

Lubar spends much of the article discussing how the phrase “do not fold, spindle or mutilate” was used in such metaphorical ways by the Free Speech Movement (FSM) at Berkeley in the 1960s. He includes a couple of illustrations of how student pranksters gamed the system, by getting registration computers to print out cards that were human readable:

He also mentions the broader use of the phrase in popular culture, in such places as murder-mystery books, birthday cards and computer dating. On a darker note, Lubar mentions that punch cards were used by the Nazis to catalog prisoners. (This connection is revealed in more depth in IBM and the Holocaust, by Edwin Black.)

Lubar concludes his article by suggesting that there is a lesson to be learned from the fact that people still use these words:

The punch cards have disappeared, and all that’s left are the words [“do not fold, spindle or mutilate”]… The survival of these few words as a part of popular culture suggests the depth of ambiguity about computerized progress.

I disagree. I very rarely hear the phrase anymore, maybe because I’m of a different generation and never actually used punch cards. Maybe it’s also because Lubar was writing almost twenty years ago. I’m having trouble thinking of a more contemporary phrase that expresses a similar sense “of ambiguity about computerized progress.”

However, I did follow up one of Lubar’s citations that interested me:

Waugh, Dorothy. “Business Machines in the Public Library.” Wilson Library Bulletin January 1942: 366-367.

UVic’s Library has issues of the Wilson Library Bulletin going back to 1939. In her article, Waugh describes an experiment jointly conducted by the Montclair Public Library and IBM, to find out if there might be cost savings in using business machines to perform routine tasks in libraries. The test involved reclassifying books and re-registering library users, to collect more data for use in improving library services. I was surprised to learn the Orwellian implications of this:

Each borrower is asked name, home address, telephone number, occupation, business address, and is also checked as to sex, color, nationality of parents, marital status, place of birth, amount of schooling and specialized training, and each is asked at the end of the interview, “What kinds of books interest you most?”

I’m having trouble understanding why any public library would have (or think it has) a legitimate reason to ask about “sex, color, nationality of parents, marital status, place of birth, amount of schooling and specialized training,” and can understand why a lot of people rebelled against government organizations collecting data like this. I’m glad that we have the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act in B.C., and a culture which allows people to control as much information about themselves as possible.

I also made a related discovery while looking for Waugh’s article – UVic’s McPherson Library used to use punch cards for circulation purposes, and some of those cards can still be found in non-circulating journals. Here’s a picture of the punch card from the bound volume of Wilson Library Bulletin where I found the article:

Notice that it has the call number (Z671 W75) and title printed on one edge, and is a standardized McPherson Library card. I checked several of the other bound volumes and found similar card inserted into a lot of them. I couldn’t tell when the library stopped using punch cards for circulation, but it’s something I’m inspired to seek out more information about.

Maybe punch cards have more relevance to my life after all…

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3 Responses to Computer Punch Cards, Libraries & History

  1. You were curious about when the McPherson Library stopped using punch cards for circulation. The punch cards weren’t used at all after 1992 as McPherson Library had moved to new technology and adopted NOTIS, a mainframe library management system with fully automated circulation. This new system used a Smart barcode label that needed to be placed on each physical item in the collection.

  2. Pingback: More on Libraries & Privacy « Vincent's Victoria

  3. Pingback: Cause & Effect | Louise Lynn

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