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Longtime Library Specialist Reflects on Industry's Evolution

Emily Boyer

Advancements in technology have given us flat-screen televisions, smartphones and e-readers. Brick-and-mortar libraries are doing their best to keep up with the digital world. Western Illinois University's Marilyn Shelley has had a front-row seat to the evolution.

Shelley is retiring after 40 years with Western's libraries. She is ending her career where it began in Cataloging.  Shelley says her job today is much different than what it was when she started in the mid 1970's.

"Yes, it's very different," Shelley said. "We did not have computers in the beginning. You had a cabinet of files. So the patron would come to the library. You would look up by subject. You would look up the card and write down the call number and then you would go up in the stacks and find it.”

When Shelley began working in Western’s Memorial Library in February of 1974, there was a backlog of 20,000 books waiting to be cataloged. She says the time it took to catalog each item meant that books weren’t readily available to the public.

"We had a lady employed years ago that would do searching for people. You would go in and say 'I’m doing a paper on or my thesis is' and she would search different databases for you. She would search and make print outs for the topic you are looking at and off you go to work with that," Shelley said. "And when you got computers that made a revolution in the cataloging world. It really did. You adapted to it and now the patron can do their own searching."

Shelley's job evolved over the years from cataloging books and print publications to working with all types of media from 35 millimeter films and beta tapes to VHS and DVD'S.

Today Western’s Malpass Library houses more than a million cataloged items. The majority of them are digitized giving people all over the world access online. Still, Shelley says people want brick and mortar libraries.

Another sign of the times is the shrinking library staff. Shelley used to be one of a dozen people in her department. Now there’s only a handful and Western does not plan to re-hire for Shelley’s position.

"I think its going to be changing in the future. More and more electronics," Shelley said. "I wouldn’t have of dreamed of that forty years ago. I just thought the library was only books. The library is so much more than books."

A retirement reception for Marilyn Shelley is scheduled for Thursday, May 28, 2014 from 2-4 p.m. at the Leslie F. Malpass Library Garden Lounge on Western Illinois University's campus.

Emily Boyer is a former reporter at Tri States Public Radio.