I was a library assistant at a community college in California when the microcomputer Commodore PET was released. At the time I was starting to think about going to college to get a library degree. To be clear, I first needed to get my B.A. as I had not gone to college out of high school (I was actually a high school dropout, but that’s a long story). Since libraries were all about information, and computers excelled in processing information, it seemed obvious to me that I needed to learn how to use computers.
That began my lifelong relationship with computers, since I wrote my very first software program on that Commodore PET, stored on a cassette tape, in the early 1980s. It was a library orientation tutorial.
From there, I minored in computer science and majored in geography at Humboldt State University. As an assistant to a geography professor there I wrote statistical analysis programs in FORTRAN and took classes in COBOL and Pascal. These were batch systems, where you submitted your job and waited for it to be run at the whim of the operators. The largest computer I ever used at Humboldt in the 80s is now far eclipsed in both power and storage by the phone in my pocket.
At UC Berkeley, where I received my MLS in 1986 and worked for 15 years, I made the acquaintance of UNIX and online time sharing computing. What a breakthrough that was. You could write and run a program immediately and get instant feedback. For a lousy code jockey like me, it was heaven. I didn’t have to wait to find out I had left out a semicolon.
So fast forward to today. Earlier today I kicked off a computing job on the OCLC Research compute cluster that took 4 minutes and 19 seconds to complete. At first that sounds like a long time, until you find out what it did. The job located 129 MARC records out of nearly 300 million that had the text string “rdacontnet”. It did this without indexes or databases. 300 million MARC records are sitting out on spinning disks somewhere in Ohio and from California I searched every byte of those records for a specific text string and it completed in less than 5 minutes. Pinch me. I’m dreaming.
Photo courtesy of Don DeBold, Creative Commons License Attribution 2.0 Generic
Roy Tennant works on projects related to improving the technological infrastructure of libraries, museums, and archives.