Friday Fable: Aesop’s “THE ARAB AND HIS CAMEL*”

Posted by jlubans on October 12, 2012

20121012-camel.png
Caption: The high road or the low road?
“An Arab loaded up his camel and then asked whether he preferred to take the uphill path or the downhill path. With a burst of inspiration, the camel replied, 'So the level road is blocked, is it?'”

When I had a particularly dumb, yet enthusiastic, idea at work, my staff, like the camel, would remind me that there were other ways, more efficient and easier, of getting the job done – the level road.
Fresh out of graduate school as Junior Science Librarian – yes, that was my title - at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York, I thought we could automate our lending system.
20121012-cardpunch.jpeg
Caption. The IBM 029 Key Punch (heels required).
My bright idea was to use the manual checkout cards – the kind that were in the backs of library books - and, nightly, key in borrower’s information, the book’s number, and the due date onto 80 column IBM cards.
20121012-punchcard.jpeg
Caption. Hollerith punched cards.
We’d sort these punched cards mechanically and produce printouts. So, we had an “automated” circulation system – sort of. The print out sat alongside the old check out card file and was rarely consulted. We had not saved anything through automation; rather I'd added more work to the system.** The circulation staff humored me - I was a lot cuter then (hah!) - especially the patient young woman who did all the keying of some 200 to 300 items every day. After a few weeks, her good humor began to wane. In my lust to automate she saw something I did not! Namely, that she was doing a lot of repeat work and that we got nothing from the effort, beyond a pile of useless print outs. One day she asked me point blank how the print out was superior to the old manual card file. I had to admit – with some chagrin – that maybe the dual files were not that great! We went back to the manual system.
*Source: Aesop's Fables. A new translation by Laura Gibbs. Oxford University Press (World's Classics): Oxford, 2002.
**This turned out to be an important lesson. Afterwards, whenever I was involved in automation I insisted that we not add work to the system and, that if automation required more people rather than fewer - as my colleagues frequently claimed - then I would want to know why. From my punched card debacle onward, I believed automation had to save time, money and staff, not the other way around.

Copyright John Lubans 2012
« Prev itemNext item »

Comments

No comments yet. You can be the first!

Leave comment