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Imagining Information Retrieval in the Library: Desk Set in Historical Context
July-September 2002 (vol. 24 no. 3)
pp. 14-22

In the 1950s, a computer that could hold the contents of a library, retrieve facts, and formulate questions was laughable to many. The 1957 movie Desk Set accurately mirrored the way ordinary citizens perceived computers and their possible consequences. On another level, the film's focus on libraries was an ideal juxtaposition of humans' intellectual capacity with machines' processing capacity.

1. The version viewed for this study is Desk Set, dir. Walter Lang, Twentieth Century Fox, 1957, videocassette, Fox, 1991; see also W. Marchant,The Desk Set: A Comedy in Three Acts,S. French, New York, 1956.
2. When I have presented different versions of this article's contents to LIS audiences, attendees have reported that portions of the film are assigned in courses, that student groups arrange to watch the film together, and that some students stage portions of the play. A former LIS student reported that a colleague gave her a copy of the video as a going-away present when she quit her job to attend graduate school as preparation for becoming a professional librarian. In June 2001, the San Francisco Public Library scheduled a showing of the film to coincide with the annual meeting of the American Library Association in that city.
3. Charles Babbage Inst., Center for the History of Information Processing, "Hollywood and Computers," .
4. The key statement about social informatics is by R. Kling, "What is Social Informatics and Why Does it Matter?" D-Lib Magazine, vol. 5, no. 1, Jan. 1999, 01kling.html; an excellent example of historical research that exhibits a social informatics sensibility and uses popular films as source materials is P.N. Edwards,The Closed World: Computers and the Politics of Discourse in Cold War America,MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass., 1996.
5. D. Newman, "Dialogue on Dialog: Interview with Roger Summit," Wilson Library Bull., vol. 60, Jan. 1986, p. 23.
6. J.W. Cortada, The Computer in the United States: From Laboratory to Market, 1930 to 1960.Amonk, N.Y.: M.E. Sharpe, 1993.
7. J.W. Cortada, The Computer in the United States: From Laboratory to Market, 1930 to 1960.Amonk, N.Y.: M.E. Sharpe, 1993.
8. "Calculatin' Emmy," Business Machines, IBM Archives, Somers, N.Y., July 1957.
9. P. and H. Ephron, "The Desk Set, Final Script" (typescript), 11 Dec. 1956, pp. 1-5. Rare Book Room/Special Collections, Michigan State Univ., East Lansing.
10. W. Aspray and D. deB. Beaver, "Marketing the Monster: Advertising Computer Technology," Annals of the History of Computing, vol. 8, no. 2, Apr. 1986, pp. 127-143.
11. E.W. Pugh, Building IBM, MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass., 1995, p. 143.
12. A good starting point for the history of computer technology is H. Rheingold, Tools for Thought: The History and Future of Mind-Expanding Technology, rev. ed., MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass., 2000, .
13. M.K. Buckland, "Emanuel Goldberg, Electronic Document Retrieval, and Vannevar Bush's Memex," J. Am. Soc. for Information Science, vol. 43, no. 4, May 1992, pp. 284, / . The desire for an information system capable of surpassing a single brain's storage and retrieval capacities predates the computer era; for example, see W.B. Rayward, "H.G. Wells's Idea of a World Brain: A Critical Reassessment,"J. Am. Soc. for Information Science,vol. 50, May 15, 1999, pp. 557-573, .
14. P. Hennessy, "Finding Aid for Edmund C. Berkeley Papers," Charles Babbage Inst. of Computer History, Univ. of Minnesota, Minneapolis, , 23 June 1999.
15. E.C. Berkeley, Giant Brains or Machines That Think, John Wiley&Sons, New York, 1949, p. vii.
16. G.H. Lovitt to E.C. Berkeley14 Feb. 1951 (typed letter), Edmund C. Berkeley Papers, Charles Babbage Inst. of Computer History, Univ. of Minnesota, Minneapolis.
17. H.E. Loftus, "Automation," Special Libraries, vol. 46, Mar. 1955, pp. 127-128.
18. A.M. Turing, "Computing Machinery and Intelligence," Mind, vol. 59, pp. 433-560, .
19. W. Aspray, John von Neumann and the Origins of Modern Computing.Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1991, pp. 86-91.
20. Time,23 Jan. 1950, cover.
21. "The Thinking Machine," Time,23 Jan. 1950, p. 54.
22. Ibid., pp. 59-60.
23. J. Lear, "Can a Mechanical Brain Replace You?" Collier's, vol. 131, 4 Apr. 1953, pp. 58-63.
24. F.G. Kilgour, "History of Library Computerization," J. Library Automation, vol. 3, no. 3, Sept. 1970, pp. 218-229.
25. F. Rider, The Scholar and the Future of the Research Library: A Problem and Its Solution, Hadham Press, New York, 1944.
26. M. Jamison, "The Microcard: Fremont Rider's Precomputer Revolution," Libraries&Culture, vol. 23, no. 1, Winter 1988, pp. 8-9; also, R.E. Molyneux, "What Did Rider Do? An Inquiry into the Methodology of Fremont Rider'sThe Scholar and the Future of the Research Library,"Libraries&Culture,vol. 29, no. 3, Summer 1994, pp. 297-325.
27. V.D. Tate, "Introducing American Documentation," Am. Documentation, vol. 1, no. 1, Winter (Jan.) 1950, p. 7.
28. Ibid., p. 3.
29. R.R. Shaw, "Machines and the Bibliographical Problems of the Twentieth Century," Bibliography in an Age of Science, Univ. of Illinois Press, Urbana, 1951, pp. 37-71.
30. R.R. Shaw, "Machines and the Bibliographical Problems," p. 66. An account of the development of the Selector and Shaw's involvement appears in C. Burke, Information and Secrecy: Vannevar Bush, Ultra, and the Other Memex, Scarecrow Press, Metuchen, N.J., 1994, especially pp. 332-350.
31. R.R. Shaw, "Machines and the Bibliographical Problems," p. 66.
32. R.R. Shaw, "Will the Machines Take Over?" Library J., vol. 76, July 1951, pp. 1085-1087.
33. Ibid., p. 1087.
34. R.R. Shaw, "From Fright to Frankenstein," D.C. Libraries, vol. 24, no. 1, Jan. 1953, p. 8.
35. L.N. Ridenour, "Bibliography in an Age of Science," Bibliography in an Age of Science, pp. 5-35.
36. A.G. Hill, "The Storage, Processing, and Communication of Information," Bibliography in an Age of Science, pp. 73-90; the quotation is on p. 86.
37. J.H. Shera and M.E. Egan, "A Review of the Present State of Librarianship and Documentation," Documentation and the Organization of Knowledge, Archon Books, Hamden, Conn., 1966, p. 36.
38. J.H. Shera, "Little Girls Don't Play Librarian," Library J., vol. 87, 15 Dec. 1962, p. 4484.
39. Ibid., p. 4486.
40. H.C. Wright, "Shera as a Bridge between Librarianship and Information Science," J. Library History, vol. 20, Spring 1985, pp. 137-156.
41. Ibid., pp. 142-143. Wright noted that 20 years later, Shera recanted: "... I am now convinced that I was wrong.... I seriously question whether there is a true interdisciplinary relation between librarianship and information science."
42. M. Taube, "Machine Retrieval of Information," Library Trends, vol. 5, Oct. 1956, p. 303; also, "Mortimer Taube, 1910-1965," Pioneers of Information Science in North America Web site, .
43. J.E. Myers, "Automation: What It Is and What It Is Not," Special Libraries, vol. 46, no. 7, Sept. 1955, p. 310.
44. J. Becker and R.M. Hayes, Information Storage and Retrieval: Tools, Elements, Theories, John Wiley&Sons, New York, 1963, pp. 40-42.
45. W.B. Rayward, "Library and Information Sciences: Disciplinary Differentiation, Competition, and Convergence," The Study of Information: Interdisciplinary Messages, F. Machlup and U. Mansfield, eds., John Wiley&Sons, New York, 1983, pp. 343-363; another perspective is offered in R.V. Williams, "The Documentation and Special Libraries Movements in the United States, 1910-1960," Historical Studies in Information Science,T. Bellardo Hahn and M. Buckland, eds., Information Today for the Am. Soc. of Information Science, Medford, N.J., 1998, pp. 171-179.
46. For an extended discussion of the gender dimensions of the evolving profession of librarianship, see R.M. Harris, Librarianship: The Erosion of a Woman's Profession, Ablex, Norwood, N.J., 1992.
47. "TheDesk SetStars Shirley Booth as a Special Librarian," Special Libraries, vol. 47, Feb. 1956, p. 87.
48. M.D. Loizeaux, "Talking Shop….," Wilson Library Bull., vol. 30, May 1956, p. 704.
49. B. Crowther, "Desk Set," New York Times,16 May 1957, p. 28.
50. W.R. Weaver, "Desk Set," Motion Picture Herald,18 May 1957, p. 377.
51. "Reviews of the New Films," The Film Daily,10 May 1957, p. 7.
52. J. Powers, "'Desk Set' is a Riotous Comedy with Smart Cast," The Hollywood Reporter,10 May 1957, p. 3.

Cheryl Knott Malone, "Imagining Information Retrieval in the Library: Desk Set in Historical Context," IEEE Annals of the History of Computing, vol. 24, no. 3, pp. 14-22, July-Sept. 2002, doi:10.1109/MAHC.2002.1024759
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