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

Posted by jlubans on October 12, 2012

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.
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.
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 »


No comments yet. You can be the first!

Leave comment