Library/USA Exhibit at the 1964-5 New York World’s Fair

Reference librarians on duty at the Library/USA exhibit

Reference librarians on duty at the Library/USA exhibit

Three years before the founding of OCLC, and seven years before Michael Hart typed the first ebook for Project Gutenberg, the public got a tangible introduction to the potential use of computers in libraries at the New York World’s Fair. Even more uniquely, the Library/USA exhibit did not introduce people to the first commonly-spread use of computer technology in libraries, the online catalog, but instead to some of the library computer applications that would come much later, such as online encyclopedias and subject bibliographies. How did the ALA orchestrate this little slice of the future?

The 1964-5 New York World’s Fair took place at the height of the Cold War, with the theme “Peace through Understanding.” There were both corporate and government exhibits at the fair. Most exhibits focused on themes of internationalism or technological progress, such as the famous Walt Disney World attractions “It’s a Small World” and “Carousel of Progress,” which were both debuted at the New York World’s Fair. The ALA’s exhibit, a part of the United States’ larger exhibit, was no exception. The United States’ exhibit had the theme “Challenge to Greatness,” with the main feature of a motorized seated ride through a filmed dramatization of America’s history and future, which then ended at the library where the visitors could seek more information on the themes of federalism and progress. The guidebook gives this description of the exhibit:

LIBRARY/USA: Members of the American Library Association answer visitor’s questions and provide reference lists on every subject covered in the pavilion. A Univac computer produces 700-word essays in four seconds on any of the concepts exhibited. An adult reading room is built around some of the late President Kennedy’s favorite books and the collection selected for the new White House library. A children’s area with more than 2,500 books also features movies and storytelling hours [1].

Planning for this ambitious exhibit began in 1963, after the ALA was formally invited to participate by the United States. A prospectus brochure was published in March 1963 that outlined all the ALA’s plans for the exhibit, and for staffing it. The exhibit had a unique staffing structure, and was partially a scholarship program:

A particularly exciting aspect of the Project is the education and training planned for the library staff. Over the 12-month period, as many as 200 librarians from every State of the Union and from overseas will be selected for training and assignment. Because of the international dimension of the Fair, foreign language ability will be a key requisite for candidacy. With the cooperation of the library schools in the greater New York area, each librarian will receive a two-week seminar in advanced library techniques and information storage and retrieval. Following this special education, they will be assigned to a one-month staff position at the Pavilion [2].

This two-week seminar included training at the IBM Systems Research Institute in Manhattan in 30-person groups [3]. This early computer training was no doubt very valuable to the librarians who received it.

UNIVAC computer visible to vistors

UNIVAC computer visible to visitors

UNIVAC loaned the computer used at the exhibit, which was housed behind a glass wall so visitors could see it. The loan of the computer was valued at a million dollars, and in addition to loaning the computer, UNIVAC donated $75,000 towards the exhibit and did all the programming to get the reference system working [4]. The computer could do two things for visitors: it could print out essays on federalist topics on demand, and it could also print out reading lists on federalist topics, with your choice of 4 reading levels. Reading lists were prepared by the ALA and ALA member libraries, and the essays were written by Encyclopedia Britannica. This reference system was accessible from different computers at other places in America, simultaneous to the display computer at the Fair, demonstrating an early use of the Internet in libraries.

Cover of the Library Information Center printout

Cover of the Library Information Center printout

Several sample print-outs from the Information Center Computer still exist, and are available at the ALA Archives. One of the reading lists, “CITY PLANNING AND URBAN RENEWAL, PREPARED FOR ADULT READERS” has been scanned for this blog post [5].

For two years, visitors to the New York World’s Fair got a small but remarkably prescient window into the future of libraries in America.

 

Sources:

[1]  Description of the Library/USA exhibit in the 1965 Official Guide Book. Quoted on NYWF64.com.

[2] Prospectus for the American Reference Center brochure. March 1963. From LIBRARY/USA Exhibit File, Box 1, Folder “American Reference Center, 1963-64.”

[3] STAFF TRAINING SCHEDULE, March 1964. From LIBRARY/USA Exhibit File, Box 2, Folder “Training 1963-65.”

[4] UNIVAC’s participation agreement for the American Reference Center, August 22, 1963. From LIBRARY/USA Exhibit File, Box 2, Folder “UNIVAC 1963-65.”

[5]  “CITY PLANNING AND URBAN RENEWAL, PREPARED FOR ADULT READERS” From LIBRARY/USA Exhibit File, Box 2, Folder “Printouts from Library/USA, 1964-65.”

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One Comment

  1. Robert Wedgeworth
    Posted September 11, 2014 at 10:23 am | Permalink

    The foundation for this exhibit was laid on for this exhibit was laid by the “Library 21” exhibit at the Seattle World’s Fair just one year earlier in 1962. The the information retrieval capabilities of the Univac Solid State 90 computer and the Xerox 912 “dry” printer made it one of the most popular exhibits at the Fair. Based on this success the exhibited was updated for the New York World’s Fair. At Seattle Dr. Robert Hayes, later the Dean at UCLA’s library school and the late Joe Becker introduced the computer training for librarians. The two most visible remaining symbols of the Seattle Fair are the monorail to the original site which still boasts the landmark Space Needle, both of which were developed for the 1962 World’s Fair.
    Robert Wedgeworth

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