Remodeling the Library for the Information Age (1980-1995)

The Heart of the Campus: A History of the Harper College Library

The Early YearsInformation AgeKnown and UsedAcademic SupportNotable Librarians

As the 1980's dawned, the Harper College library had 211,718 items making it the second largest library collection of any other community college in the state, except for the College of DuPage.1 However, this was primarily a collection focused on academic subjects and geared towards traditional students (ie. high school graduates looking to take the first step towards getting a degree). But in 1980, Harper College published a Self Study report that demonstrated significant demographical shifts in the community it served. For example, the study showed that older, part-time students were slowly, but steadily, replacing high school graduates as the majority of the student body. This group (more than two-thirds of which were women leaving their traditional roles as homemakers) were more interested in learning a vocation or trade than earning a degree.2 The college was also accepting students with physical or visual disabilities and others for whom English was not their first language. Since the needs of the community were changing, the library began finding ways to adapt and remain relevant.

Students using the library's legal reference collection on September 16, 1982.
One way the library did this was by widening its collecting focus. This was the start of what librarian Dwain Thomas called "a melting of the boundaries between academic, public, and school libraries".3 For example, the library began acquiring best sellers and popular magazines that were more commonly found in public libraries, and started participating in a book leasing program in 1982 that provided patrons with access to at least ten new best-sellers each month. In addition, a new magazine index provided patrons with a greater selection of periodicals from which they could conduct research. The quality of this collection was enhanced with assistance from Harper faculty members, who helped the librarians survey the periodicals they had, and make informed purchasing decisions. The library also began collecting items that would be relevant to students and faculty in the college’s vocational programs, including a legal reference collection that could be used by the paralegal department.

Students using the library on November 21, 1986.A librarian shows students how to use the magazine index. This photo was taken on November 20, 1986.A class looks on as one of the librarians explains how to use the reference collection. This photo was taken on November 25, 1986.
Students using the library on May 20, 1980.

A reference librarian using InfoTrac, one of the library's online databases. This photo was taken on February 21, 1992.
Technological innovations also made it easier for patrons to find the resources they were looking for. First, the library acquired the rights to access online databases, such as DIALOG, Vu/Text, PsychINFO, FirstSearch, and others. Collectively, these databases allowed patrons to search for materials across the collections of over 18,000 libraries and more than 400 content providers. Database searching was particularly helpful to patrons whose research involved multiple, interlocking concepts and who needed their search results to be as comprehensive as possible. Around this time, the library also began acquiring titles, periodicals, and databases on compact discs, which could provide patrons with access to full text articles instead of just the abstracts. These discs were very thin and could hold so much information that they helped the library reclaim much needed shelf space and save a significant amount of money in acquisition expenses. The library set up a system called “CLAS” (CD-ROM Library Access) to allow students access to the information on these discs, which included collection of databases such as Congressional Quarterly, Biographical Index, Newsbank, ERIC, and others. Realizing the popularity of these resources, the librarians worked with the college’s IT department to network groups of computers together so that more than one student could access these systems at a time – a significant victory over previous technological limitations.

The librarians also harnessed technology to update their catalog system. Realizing that the old card catalog was unable to handle the enormous growth and diversity of their collections, the library began an automation project in 1986. This involved talking to vendors to find the best system to meet the library's needs and creating an automated copy of every record in the catalog. Eventually, the librarians hired the CLSI company to create a new online catalog called ALIS (or "Alice"). With assistance from a national databank, the project was completed after three years of work. The library had now entered the automation age.

On the left is a stack of books waiting to have their card catalog records entered into the automated system. On the right is a sample catalog record from the automation project. These pictures were taken around 1989.Library staff member Cheryl Rosenberg designed "Friendly Computer" as a logo to represent the face of the automation project in 1988.

Automation provided many benefits for students and librarians alike. Eileen Dubin, who had become Director of Library Services in 1983, believed that the project would "give students the thrill of becoming computer literate."4 Students could now search for materials by author, topic, or title and perform complex searches across multiple formats. Additionally, the automated catalog gave Harper students and faculty the ability to request resources from nearly 3,000 other public and academic libraries across the country. This resulted in a dramatic 100% increase in interlibrary loan (ILL) requests between 1984 and 1986.5. Automation also added to the responsibilities of the librarians, who would now need to help teach students how to use this new system. This led to a dramatic spike in the number of annual reference requests handled by the library, which increased over twelve-fold from 1,450 in 1975 to 18,000 by the start of the 1990's. 6 Lastly, automation also drastically cut the amount of time it took the library staff to make new materials available to patrons and made it easier to monitor the location of each item and when materials were due.

The library’s physical space also underwent major changes during this period. Starting in the fall of 1984, the library’s operations were extended to 75½ hours a week. This had long been a common goal of the student body, faculty, and the Student Senate; petitions circulated around campus in support of the idea for several semesters prior to the change taking effect. In addition, the library also purchased equipment that could be used by students with visual or physical disabilities, such as an enlarged print reader and a Kurzwell Reading Machine (click the link for a picture) which could scan pages of text and convert them into synthesized speech. A separate room was then built to house these machines and give students using them a place to read and study. Furthermore, the library began collecting books in braille and closed captioned films and VHS tapes. Additionally, the library created an expanded browsing section where patrons could easily identify newly published books acquired by the library.

The biggest change of all, however, took place in 1995 when library underwent a $3.5 million renovation, which required the librarians to move their operations temporarily to A Building. When it was completed, the library had an expanded area for circulation, a new room for bibliographic instruction to teach students to use the CLAS and ALIS systems, and more than triple the available shelving for its reference collection. The main stacks and best seller shelving areas were also increased by nearly 50% each, and more room was made for the library's legal reference collection. In all, the library now had approximately 84,000 square feet of room. Additionally, major areas of the library (such as reference, circulation, etc.) were now clearly marked with signage and the facility had better lighting and more comfortable furniture for those who wanted to study or read for pleasure.

The library put out a flyer in the summer of 1994 advertising the benefits students would see from the remodeling project.These architectural drawings, printed in early 1994, show what the renovated library would look like.
Students studying in the library on September 20, 1995.The library's new and improved reserve desk on February 14, 1995.The renovated library included an information desk to help students find their way around the building. This picture was taken on September 20, 1995.Librarian Fran Dionisio helps a student at the newly expanded circulation desk on October 26, 1995.