Interview of Velma Veneziano and Adele Combs, July 18, 2014


(By Jerry Specht.)  Unlike the other interviews, this is an edited/transcribed version of the interview.  Velma was 93 at the time of the interview!


Jerry:    Velma, I see from Wayne McPherson’s interview of you in the April 1991 NUL Computing News, (written on the occasion of your “retirement”) that you were working at the Chicago Board of Education just prior to starting with Northwestern.  To quote from that:


I have no formal training in computer science or in mathematics or in library science.  I was a history major in college, back in World War II before computers were common.  I got involved in computers accidentally in 1958 at Science Research Associates [SRA], which later became a division of IBM.  They published materials for schools and did educational testing.   They needed a “Girl Friday” to work with a fellow who was developing a means of automatically collecting and processing standardized test scores.  At that stage, they were practically combing the streets for anyone with the slightest interest in computers.  So I got in accidentally and got absorbed in it.


From there I went to the Chicago Board of Education for seven years.  At that time there was a great deal of graft and corruption going on in the school system which I finally decided I couldn’t stomach.  So I talked to Ben Mittman who was then head of Vogelback.  He said there was a new Associate Librarian, John McGowan, charged with a means of utilizing computers in library operations.  Ben sent me over to John and I started in January 1967.


·       How did it happen that you contacted Ben Mittman?  Did you know him somehow?


Velma:   Actually, Ben’s cousin was a co-worker of mine at the Board of Education.   He had worked as a Chicago school teacher and been “drafted” to design a system to keep track of students’ attendance. 


Jerry:  So you didn’t have any connection to Northwestern before you contacted his cousin, Ben, about a job?


Velma:  That’s correct; no connection. 


Jerry:   Was the decision to hire you made entirely by John … or did other people play a role?   I’m interested because, as you say, you didn’t have any training in computer science or in library science.  It seems that John sensed in you an analytical mind and felt that that was more important than direct experience.  {Or maybe there were so few people in those days with any computer experience (-- such as yours with Science Research Associates--) that you stood out for that reason.}  I think the more conventional choice would have been to hire someone with more library experience. 


Velma:   John, himself, didn’t know what he wanted.  He needed somebody to satisfy the University Board of Directors because they thought he knew more about computers than he did; he needed someone who knew something about computers.  I had that from my work with SRA.


Jerry:  What some readers may not realize is how exotic computers were in those days.


Velma:   Yes, and women in computing were almost nonexistent.  Women are better at certain aspects of library automation.… 

    I had had contact with GE [General Electric] as part of my Board of Education work.  GE was one of the big, early computer developers.   The Board contracted with them to study the potential uses of computers in their schools.   They emphasized the concept of a total plan, a total system.  That’s where I got started on the idea that anything that was done had to be total.   When I began working with libraries, people around the country were definitely not thinking about total systems.


Jerry:   Jim Aagaard (-- who started on the library project shortly after you --) in a 1964 memo talked about the importance of an integrated library system.   I think it’s incredible that the two of you should both, so early, have been thinking in terms of total, integrated systems….


Velma:  That was the secret of our success, over these places that thought they were automating if they produced an overdue list….


Jerry:   Continuing with Wayne’s April 1991 interview, you said:  “My first chore was simply to interview library staff members and flowchart all of their jobs….”


Of course, “interviewing library staff members and flowcharting all of their jobs” is what a systems analyst would do.   It sounds like the simplest and most natural thing in the world, but I would suggest that almost no one (else) has done this thoroughly, effectively, and seriously with library systems. 

    In my interview with Bruce and Kenton, Bruce said that one of your main contributions was instilling a “systems analysis” mentality in the library staff.    Is he right?


Velma:   I presented them with “challenges”.


Adele:  I can remember very well you popping into my office, asking, “Would it be better if we did this or this” – in terms I could understand quite clearly.


Velma:  Engineers don’t understand the need to translate the scientific vocabulary into a layperson’s terms, something comprehensible to librarians.


Jerry:    Continuing with the NUL Computing News interview, you said:  “At that time batch processing was still the most accepted mode; people were just beginning to think about on-line systems. But after studying library processes, it seemed to me that, if we were going to make anything other than marginal improvements in operations, an on-line system was needed; not a batch system which poured out piles of paper which immediately became obsolete.”


Velma:  John [McGowan] told all the Circulation staff to throw away all their paper overdue files, but there was one Circulation lady who hid hers…. I don’t believe she ever really needed it….


Jerry:   Then you go on to say:  “During that time Jim Aagaard (who was then at Vogelback) became interested in the library application and developed our first application, circulation control, which became operational in 1970….”


That interview was from the April 1991 NUL Computing News.  In the May 1991 Lantern’s Core Jim discussed his work with you:


Velma started on the project in January 1967 and immediately began an exhaustive (and probably exhausting) analysis of the current operations (in Deering Library, of course).  This approach is one which Velma has continued to follow.  Many library staff members who are associated with an area which has been affected by NOTIS have had the experience of spending long hours of discussion with Velma as she probes into what they are doing and why it is being done in a particular way.  She has never started a project with preconceived notions, but has reached her conclusions after long hours of discussion, reflection, and occasional pacing of the floor. 

   The earliest written record I can find of my involvement was the first in a series of planning meetings in August 1967, while I was still working at Vogelback.  It is particularly interesting to review the progress report as of December 1967.  The list of general requirements in that report is as valid today as it was then.  To me, this is clear evidence of the vision which Velma has brought to the Northwestern University Library, and to the library community at large.  The following points, slightly edited to save space, appeared in that report: … “


And then he goes on to list nine items from your 1967 report.   


I think that you and Jim becoming involved in this enterprise in the exact same year was particularly fortuitous.  Don’t you think?


Velma:  Jim was and is brilliant.  Not only is he brilliant but he’s an incredibly hard worker….  The new building – without that, it never would have happened.  ’67 was a dynamic time.


Jerry:  Adele, When did you start at Northwestern?  What were the circumstances of your hiring, and what did you do in those early years?


Adele:    My husband and I had been in New York.   He was in library school at Columbia and I was working in the library’s Reference Dept.   My husband got a job at Northbrook Public Library.  What’s around Northbrook?  I knew right away that I wanted to work at Northwestern.  My husband wanted me to just walk in, save them the money and trouble of flying me out later.  I called the director, Mr. Nyholm.  He asked me five times:  “Did you write?  Did you send a letter?”  Anyway, they did let me come in for an interview.   I sat and sat and sat.  After about half an hour a gentleman approached me and asked, “Is there something I can do to help you?”  That was Tom Buchman [who would later become library director].  He interviewed me, and I did eventually get a job in Reference.  When I heard about a job as “Deputy Head of Public Services”, I applied for it and got that too.  I started at Northwestern in November, 1968, eventually becoming Head of Public Services.


Jerry:  Velma, I don’t remember our ever having much direct contact, but I formed a high opinion of you, early-on, based on three things:


·       The first was a session of a Library Automation class taught by J.D. Divilbiss in 1980 at the University of Illinois Library School, where I was a student.  Mr. Divilbiss, a very good teacher and one whose opinion I respected greatly, spoke of a very good library system, NOTIS, which had been developed by “two geniuses” at Northwestern University Library. That got my attention and stuck in my mind, and, upon graduation, one of the first things I did was to send my resume to Northwestern University Library, expressing my interest in working with NOTIS.  They replied that there were no positions open at that time, but that they would keep my resume on file.   Which they did.  In 1984 Jane Burke found my resume, called me, and hired me to work as a Systems Engineer.

    Mr. Divilbiss did not say who the two geniuses were but, after being at the library for a few days, I felt that one of them had to be Dr. Aagaard … and the other, almost certainly, yourself.  To confirm this, I recently emailed Professor Divilbiss, and he has replied that, yes:  the two geniuses were Jim and Velma.


Velma:   Well I don’t know about that.  I suppose as long as I’m one of two….




·       The second thing entering into my high opinion of you was my actual work with NOTIS and my support of customers who were using the system -- a system whose functional design I understood that you had been largely responsible for – in particular, the Cataloging and Authorities module, which I felt was especially strong and a very big factor in large research libraries choosing NOTIS.


·       And the third thing, though indirect, was also very strong:  Jim Aagaard, the most brilliant programmer and system designer I’ve ever known, though cordial and polite with most everyone he meets, does not, let us say, “suffer fools gladly”.   The fact that he joined with you as a full partner in this enterprise spoke (and speaks) volumes for his high estimation of your abilities.


Velma:  Some other people who deserve recognition [besides Jim Aagaard and Karen Horny] are Betty Furlong and Janet Swan Hill.  Very smart people.


Jerry:  Your and Jim’s article “Cost Advantages of Total System Development” from the 1976 Clinic on Library Applications of Data Processing, discusses “whether … it is economically feasible and operationally practical for an individual library to design and operate its own in-house automated system.  At Northwestern University Library the answer is both yes and no, but more yes than no.”


This was a rebuttal to Richard DeGennaro’s 1975 article, “Library Automation, the Second Decade”, from which you quote extensively.


You go on to cite, in detail, the costs and benefits of NOTIS development, introducing the concept of “economy of scope” {the “T” (“Total”) in NOTIS} and making a very strong case for NOTIS’ cost-effectiveness at Northwestern.


In describing the factors in the success of the Northwestern local system you fail, however, to mention two of the most important:  you and Jim.   Most libraries would not have such dedicated, brilliant people guiding their systems; and the results of such local development may not be as successful as Northwestern’s. 


Velma:  A gal from Stanford said we’d never have an online library catalog.


Adele:   I was at an ARL meeting and people didn’t believe me….  Innocent me … what did I know?


Jerry:  You turned out to be right; that must have given you some satisfaction.


Point #8 in Jim’s summary of the nine points described above had to do with compatibility with other libraries’ data.  Jim wrote:  “Point 8, however, does not do justice to Velma’s concern for adherence to standards wherever they exist.   She demonstrated her commitment to standards as a long-time member and early chair of the ALA’s interdivisional MARBI committee, and continues to monitor closely its activities.”  I think that your emphasis upon the inclusion of the full MARC record in NOTIS has been thoroughly vindicated, but it seems that at the time there was a lot of opposition to this idea, was there not? 


Velma:  Yes…. This is the thing that has to be said for Jim Aagaard:   A staff member would come to me with a bug; I’d tell Jim and the next morning it would be remedied.  Other engineers might have said:  “It’s OK. You just don’t know how to use it.”   He fixed it.  

   Jim’s philosophy comes from IBM…. The more money and people you throw at a project, the longer it  takes.  There’s something to be said for a lean, efficient operation.  He was wise not to have gone past where he felt comfortable.


Jerry:  It seems that you probably had quite a few dealings with Henriette Avram – and quite a bit in common (-- in the overlap in the time of your careers and in the fact that you were both women, in the largely male world of data processing – especially back then).    Any particular memories of Henriette?


Velma:   She was a very practical person.  She was instrumental in the libraries finally getting together.  She was a fireball.  Some people didn’t like her; she could be abrasive.  She was just a smart woman.


Jerry:  Why didn’t Linked Systems [the Linked Systems Project] work? 


Velma:  Libraries can be too protective of “their things”.   We haven’t gotten to the point where we’re really willing to share.


Jerry:  Another document I found in the NUL Archives which especially interested me was a transcription of your speech at the 1993 NOTIS Users Group Meeting .  


You expressed frustration with the course of events in recent years:

We started very modestly, almost giving it away, but with the proviso that any library that got NOTIS had to take it on an as-is basis – they could expect only minimal help from us….

But the word spread, and more and more libraries were approaching us about acquiring the system.   Also, about this time, dollar signs began to get into the eyes of the University Librarian and the University Administration.   Wouldn’t it be nice, they reasoned, to be able to partly finance the development of the features we needed at Northwestern by the sale of the system to other libraries.  To make a long story short, we eventually yielded to temptation and set up a marketing operation in the library, which for reasons I won’t go into, proved disastrous.

Pressure to provide features began to be put upon us, which involved time frames that were absolutely impossible to meet.  All-in-all, these were very trying times.  As I look back, it’s a wonder we all didn’t crack under the strain.

So, in 1987, when it was finally decided by the University for us that NOTIS would be turned over lock, stock and barrel to NOTIS Inc., we had no choice but to gracefully (or perhaps not so gracefully on some of our parts) acquiesce and relinquish over the NOTIS we had so carefully nurtured….


It was not easy relinquishing control.  It was particularly galling to have to agree to using the commercial version of NOTIS.  A number of us in the library felt that though the University’s gain moneywise was in some respects the Library’s loss.  Fortunately some of the most important enhancements which we had developed during the ‘80’s were accepted by NOTIS Inc. and incorporated into NOTIS.  (I’m thinking particularly about the merged headings indexes with authority control and syndetic structure they provided, or else I think there would have been an open rebellion.)


It wasn’t until we had set up our disastrous marketing operation that we got a couple extra positions using funds allocated by the University to Marketing function.  However in many ways matters got worse.  Keep in mind that NOTIS was never developed with marketing in mind; we had always been able to decide on a reasonable time frame for what we were doing, and we often came up ahead of schedule.  And when we finished, our programs had been thoroughly tested, both for functionality and efficiency.


Now the situation has changed.  Marketing people want commitments that suit their marketing purposes.  They refuse to accept time estimates such as “as fast as we can”.  They are always concerned about losing a sale if delivery cannot be made almost instantaneously.  And they are often less concerned about elegance of design, efficiency of operation, and thorough testing, than getting the product out the door.”


<end quote>


You weren’t pulling any punches!...


Velma:  Jim is the one who had to bear the brunt.  They thought he could do anything….  I didn’t really get into it.


Jerry:  Your “dollar signs began to get into the eyes of the University Librarian and the University Administration,” indicates that the push came from John McGowan and other administrators.   (But, perhaps, John was not shooting for overwhelming success in the broad library market, but, rather, thinking of a more modest success in the large-research-library market?)

   Do you remember John being the driving force behind this?  Are there other specific people you remember being involved?


Velma:   I think I kind of overstated that;… it’s a bit heavy….  I think the University administration pushed John and John pushed Jim.


Jerry:  In my interviews with John Kolman and Kenton Andersen they suggested that, if the incremental “word-of-mouth” model which preceded Jane’s involvement -- with less marketing of NOTIS to public, special, smaller academic, and community college libraries – had continued, focusing on the ARL libraries, though NOTIS would never have had the overwhelming success it did in the broad library market, it may still have had quite a bit of success and – considering how many fewer marketing and development staff would have been required – might actually have been equally profitable.  Do you think?


Velma:  In other words, being more selective as to the type of library.


Jerry:  It seems that keyword/Boolean was something that libraries increasingly felt they needed.  From your writings, it’s clear that you didn’t agree; you felt keyword/Boolean gives users a false sense of success without giving them the complete, accurate results that a controlled vocabulary can.


Velma:  I still don’t agree.  You’ve got to have some kind of authority control; by itself, keyword is not really the appropriate solution.


Jerry:  It seemed that you viewed this an either/or situation …  wouldn’t it be best if the user can choose between the two?  I don’t suppose your view has changed over the years?    (I suspect that, from a practical standpoint, your view was that ISDO did not have the resources to develop both Merged Headings and Keyword/Boolean.) 


Velma:  Yes….   I’m working on a better solution:  my natural language project, described in my blog at  


[Note:  a search on “neuronetty veneziano” brings up two results in Google:


  BLOG.NEURONETTY.INFO: Tag Archive for neuronetty

Mar 24, 2012 - neuronetty. ... SPRITE - Neuronetty ... Velma Veneziano Throughout the late 1960''s and early 1970''s Northwestern continually developed ...


Mar 22, 2012 - neuronetty. ... Velma Veneziano Throughout the late 1960''s and early 1970''s Northwestern continually developed "firsts" to research library ...


But clicking on either of these gets, “The connection was reset”.  ]


Jerry:  What are each of you proudest of having done in connection with NOTIS?   


Velma:  GE taught me how to analyze an operation.  Don’t put things out that can’t be related to each other.  The idea of “total”.   Daring to do it; not being afraid of failing.


Adele:  We were so puzzled. We couldn’t figure out what a certain Circulation table value was doing.  (It had to do with data integrity, things happening at the same time.)  I figured out what this one little thing really was.   [It was not programmed by Jim; probably, by Kenton.]  Jim said:  “Is that what that does?!”