NOTIS at the University of South Alabama, 1980-1985


My article, "NOTIS--The University of South Alabama Libraries' Experience in Automation," Alabama Librarian, January, 1985, substantially recounts efforts at the University of South Alabama. So, with a little repetition of that piece, here I will focus on some of the human side of the work and its novel dimensions. There are a few discrepancies in the dates of events as presented in the article that I will correct here. The first thing to remember about acquiring a library system in 1980 is that everything was new:

·       About all I knew was that we wanted a system that integrated the basic contemporary library functions both technical and public services—basically acquisitions, serials, cataloging, accounting, online catalog (including Boolean capability) and circulation. There was no system available that did all these things, but they needed to be part of the requirements. At this time, there was no cottage industry in library automation RFPs.

·       Commercial vendors such as UTLAS, CLSI and DataPhase were just beginning to develop integrated “mini-computer”  based systems and a number of projects were underway at several research libraries that held promise—Northwestern University, University of Chicago, Ohio State University, University of Pennsylvania, and Virginia Tech among others.

·       Everyone was clueless about important dimensions of the effort—the cost of software and hardware, the amount of local effort, the support from the vendor, indeed where the locus of computing resources would/should be.

When I moved from Elon College (now University) to the University of South Alabama in the Fall of 1980, one of the first things I told my boss, Provost James Bobo, was that this is something we would need to do.  James, being James was supportive, but this was out of instinct since everything was (as I told him) terra incognita. In retrospect, he was placing a lot of trust in his new director of libraries to resolve the many unanswered questions.

 I did know that that the effort to develop a local system was probably beyond the resources at USA and beyond my level of patience.  One early experience was enough to understand this, a visit to Northwestern University in 1976.  While attending ALA’s Centennial meeting in Chicago that summer, I visited a good friend who was then working in the Science Library at Northwestern.  Steve Leach gave me a short demo of NOTIS, which at that time was primarily and serials and acquisitions system.  He made it clear though that this was because the library administration and system developers viewed this as one of the most difficult areas to automate and the foundation for a full library system.  I was already familiar with single function systems like BATAB (Baker & Taylor Automated Buying), which we used for acquisitions at UNC Charlotte where I worked. 

Prior to going to USA I did a lot of fact-finding during the 1980 ALA annual conference in New York—vendors were eager to help an eager new library director. The scale of the Northwestern Libraries’ effort was certainly evident five years later. By the time the dust settled at the new job, I had made the fortunate acquaintance with V. Gordon Moulton, the young Dean of Administrative Services, who retired as President of USA in 2013. Gordon was of inestimable help in the whole process of identifying, acquiring and installing NOTIS. Above all, we agreed that, if at all possible, the library system should run on the IBM mainframe in Computer Center.

We began the work with a December 1980 trip to Chicago and our first stop was at IBM HQ to look at the Dobis-Leuven System which they were marketing. During the demo, Gordon averred that if we did not have a better experience at Northwestern we would go home and develop our own. That we did not was a result a meeting the next day with James Aagard and Velma Veneziano and, of course, what we learned of the work at Northwestern.  Happily, Gordon was convinced.  The first hurdle afterwards was funding the purchase, initially $50,000—there was no budget to cover what for USA was this substantial amount. I did have $25,000 accumulated funds that I was hoarding in the Libraries’ fines account. The Medical Library reported to me and other half was provided by the Medical School. I can say, that staff in the Computing Center and Library were excited and a tad nervous about what this automation effort would mean. Events moved quickly thereafter—in Spring and Summer 1981 we signed a contract and within a few months loaded software.  The early work was guided exclusively by phone conversations not only with the Northwestern automation staff, but also with the direct help from operational units.  It must also be said that the efforts undertaken at the University of Florida, the first NOTIS customer in North America, were of great benefit. In particular Nolan Pope was always prepared to help as Florida undertook reprogramming the system for VSE.

The key pieces of the effort described in "NOTIS--The University of South Alabama Libraries' Experience in Automation" name many of the key players. It is critical to mention that it was a total staff effort. However, I do owe a particular thanks to Pat Ramage and Roberta Kirby for their leadership on the automation team in this long ago seminal project.  Without them, it would have been a far more difficult undertaking.  With them, South Alabama in late 1982 was able arguably to lay claim to the first operational LUIS public catalog in the US (outside of Evanston of course). By Spring of 1983 all systems then available were fully functional. Before I left USA in 1985, circulation was installed and up and running. It would be 17 years before NOTIS was replaced with Endeavor in 2000.  Not a bad run for a mainframe enterprise utility.


Charles B. Lowry, Ph.D.

Professor Emeritus

University of Maryland, School of Information

February, 2015