Today, I struggle with change. The University of
Houston's College of Engineering presents this
series about the machines that make our
civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity
I'm standing behind the
University of Houston's Library. Tons of file
cards, stuffed in cardboard boxes, wait to be
hauled off and recycled. I take one for a souvenir.
On June 18, 1990, the library trashed its file
system. I'm surrounded by two million cards. The
staff spent one full lifetime creating them.
Back in the building, they show me a microcomputer.
Deep in its stomach are three CD-ROM discs. They
look just like your compact disc recording of the
Shostakovich 5th Symphony. The holdings of seven
regional libraries live on those three discs --
some eight million items. They hold 1800 Mbytes of
The old card file cases once filled a thousand
square feet of floor space. Now they're part of the
state surplus equipment inventory. I've welcomed
much of the change that modern technology has given
me. But this is hard to digest. After all, what's a
library without great ranks of musty drawers
leading us to all the things we'd ever care to ask
Today, asking is far easier than it's ever been. I
saw a book on cultural change during the American
Revolution. But I forget its title. So I enter the
command, American Revolution plus Cultural. The
computer gives me three titles that combine those
words. One is the book I couldn't remember. It's
A Cultural History of the American
Revolution by Silverman.
I've just done what's called a Boolean search. It
uses notions from Boolean set theory to search for
associated words, anywhere on the disc. I wouldn't
get anywhere in a card file with such skimpy recall
of a title. Another advantage is that you can't
misfile cards on a CD-ROM disc. If the information
is there, the machine will find it.
We committed ourselves to this change in 1987.
That's when we stopped adding new cards to the
file. For three years students had to search both
an older computer and the card file to catch
everything. These changes are going on in libraries
everywhere, but we got into the game earlier than
For two centuries now, each generation has had to
absorb huge technological changes. As we grow old,
we start resisting them. My father flew 14 years
after the Wright Brothers did, but he never
accepted the pocket calculator. My mother was on
the radio while her listeners still used crystal
sets, but she never used a dishwasher. She said she
liked the feel of hot water on her arthritis.
Actually, she was simply tired of change. I'll use
this fine new library catalog, but I also feel the
gathering loss of a way of life. Sooner or later,
I'll dig my in my heels too. But not yet. I'm
having too much fun to quit just yet.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds