Ralph Papakhian and Technological Transformations of the 1980s: A Personal History

This is the text for the presentation given by Richard Griscom at the fall 2021 meeting of the Midwest Chapter of the Music Library Association. A video recording of thirty-minute presentation is available on YouTube in two parts: one and two. An expanded version of the text contains anecdotes that weren’t included in the presentation.

Last year was the tenth anniversary of Ralph Papakhian’s death, and I’d intended to write a remembrance of him to mark the occasion but didn’t because I got caught up in working from home and adjusting to life during the pandemic. Once I retired at the beginning of this year, I finally had some time to think and write about Ralph and his influence, and I thank the program committee for letting me share this personal history with you. I was a member of the Midwest chapter for twenty-three years before I moved to Philadelphia in 2004. Many of you are former colleagues and students—and friends—and it’s good to be with you again.

I got to know Ralph in the 1980s, when library technology was going through some transformational changes. Over the course of a few years, we saw the introduction of shared online cataloging, the online public catalog, and electronic mail, and these new technologies changed the way librarians did their work. The early 1980s marked the beginning of a period of technological innovation that continues to this day. I want to talk with you about Ralph’s influence on me—influence that many of you also benefited from—and I want to give you a first-hand account of the what it was like to live through these changes in the 1980s. And I’ll close by reflecting a bit on the equally transformational changes of the past decade—changes that Ralph unfortunately didn’t have the opportunity to experience.

I was sitting in the library at Indiana University working on a class assignment when I first saw Arsen Ralph Papakhian. He was standing at the card catalog on the other side of the room, and something about him caught my eye. I suppose it was his wiry beard and unkempt black hair. He looked like a young assistant professor, and I was puzzled I hadn’t seen him around. He extended a sliding shelf from the center of the card catalog, pulled a catalog drawer out, and set it on the shelf. He looked carefully at one card, then moved to the front of the drawer and started flipping through all the cards, using both index fingers, looking only at the ones that for some reason were sticking up above the others. He stopped and grimaced at a card, pulled it out of the drawer, flipped ahead a few cards, and reinserted it. Once he’d reached the back of the drawer, he did something I’d never seen: he lifted the round knob on the front of the drawer and pulled out the long metal rod attached to it. The cards that had been sticking out above the others dropped into place, and he replaced the rod.

Who was this man, and by what authority was he pulling out drawers, moving cards, and removing rods?

I had moved to Bloomington in fall 1978 to begin a master’s program in musicology with a minor in percussion. These were the days before JSTOR and e-books, so I spent a lot of time in the music library. It was in the basement of Sycamore Hall, a building constructed in 1940 as a women’s dormitory. Like nearly all buildings on IU’s campus, it was made of dreary, gray Indiana limestone. Music faculty had offices in former dorm rooms on the upper floors, and the music library was in a cramped, warren-like space in the basement. Pipes in the ceiling burst occasionally and sprayed water onto the collection.

I was one of four or five students entering the musicology program that year. A required class for all of us was David Fenske’s course on music bibliography and research methods. Music reference sources were available only in print, so the core of David’s course was a survey of the books shelved in the reference section on the left side of this first room. The class members spent hours at a long table nearby, working their way through the week’s assigned reference books. We pulled each volume from the shelf, examined it, and took notes. There were assignments that sent us on treasure hunts in search of answers to questions like, What was Joseph Haydn’s relationship to a dog named Turk?

I was sitting at the long table taking notes on that week’s books when I watched Ralph and puzzled over who he was and what he was doing. Although he wasn’t particularly short, he seemed foreshortened. Maybe it was the aura of gravity about him, or maybe it was his broad face, with a nose that formed an equilateral triangle when looking at him straight on. Over time, I noticed he wore khaki pants year round with long-sleeved Oxford shirts when it was cool and patterned Columbia short-sleeved shirts when it was warm. I never saw him wear a pair of blue jeans, but on the other hand, I never saw him wear a tie.

I also learned later that he was Armenian and proud of his heritage. His father, mother, and older brother and sister had immigrated to the United States from Beirut, Lebanon, in 1946, two years before he was born. They traveled by boat to the US and settled in Detroit, where Ralph was born in December 1948. Ralph’s father was fifty-one and his mother was thirty. The family spoke Armenian at home, and Ralph was fluent.

He attended Cass Technical High School, where he played clarinet and tenor saxophone. Years earlier, other students at Cass Tech included jazz musicians Paul Chambers, Ron Carter, and Alice Coltrane; singer Diana Ross; comedian Lily Tomlin; automaker John DeLorean; and rock musician Jack White.

It wasn’t until 1980, two years after I first saw him, that I got to know Ralph. I had finished a master’s degree in musicology and was having second thoughts about continuing with the doctorate. I learned about IU’s one-year program in music librarianship when a few of my musicology classmates completed it and were able to land jobs soon after. Music librarianship seemed an appealing career that lined up well with my interests, so I applied to the program and was admitted.

At the center of Indiana’s specialization in music librarianship was a spring seminar taught by David Fenske and the four other music librarians. The semester was divided into sections covering broad topics, and subsets of the librarians taught each section for a few weeks at a time: David on library administration, Michael Fling and Kathy Talalay on reference services and collection development, and Ralph and Sue Stancu on technical services.

Ralph was recognized as a leader in the music-cataloging community and could have lectured at length about his successful work at Indiana, but he rarely talked about himself. His teaching was Socratic. Class sessions often centered on a cataloging problem he’d found in his work, and he invited us to think through the problem with him. One day he brought in a score selected at random from a new shipment. “So. How would you catalog this?” We looked at the cover and the title page and threw out some ideas. He thought for a while and said, “I think I’d put it in the backlog.”

At IU, there was always a point in spring semester when academic buildings were too hot. The HVAC systems on campus responded slowly to the rising outside temperature and continued to pump hot air into buildings as if it were still winter. For our afternoon seminar sessions that spring, Ralph often opened the windows to lower the temperature and increase the chances we’d all stay awake. One afternoon, a paper airplane flew in through one of the windows. Ralph walked over and picked it up. It was made from a piece of notebook paper and decorated in pencil. He started laughing—his punctuated, guttural laugh—and brought the airplane back to our circle of chairs. Written on the wings were slogans of mock anger: “Down with AACR2!” on one and “No AACR2 in I.U. libraries!” on the other.

A member of Ralph’s staff was behind this prank, and it played on two things: the irksome work of implementing AACR2 and Ralph’s political activism. It was early 1981, and the library had just implemented AACR2, which mandated changes to hundreds of name headings—mostly for the better (for example, from Chaĭkovskiĭ with a C to Tchaikovsky with a T) but some for the worse (for example, from Nutcracker to Shchelkunchik).

In 1981, most librarians were only dreaming of online catalogs, so the AACR2 heading changes had to be applied to cards. Electric erasers with tips that spun like dentist drills were in heavy use. There were thousands of catalog cards to revise. Most of this tedious work fell to staff and students who often didn’t understand the reason behind the changes. So, “Down with AACR2!”

The other target of the paper-airplane creator’s humor was Ralph’s political activism. He was outspoken in his political views, which centered on large issues like American intervention in foreign countries, nuclear proliferation, needless wars, disregard for the environment, and unfair labor practices. He was concerned less about the individual politicians, who come and go, and more about the larger evils that endure. At the start of one of our seminar sessions on cataloging, he asked, “So what do you want to talk about?” We looked at him blankly. He said, “I think we should talk about El Salvador. I’m worried about El Salvador.”

A few years later, after I’d settled into my first job, I wrote him a letter asking about his interpretation of a MARC data element. He scribbled his opinions on the letter and returned it. Across the top, he wrote, “Did you go to anti-nuclear march on Nov. 11 in Chicago?” I hadn’t gone, but he would have.

When you entered Sycamore Hall, if you walked past the entrance to the library and continued straight down the corridor, there was a large technical services workroom on the left and the backlog and rare-book rooms on the right. The workroom was a large open space with no interior walls or privacy panels, so staff sitting at desks could be seen by everybody. Ralph sat near the center of the room at a small desk covered with papers and books. An IBM Selectric typewriter was on an extension perpendicular to the desk. Sue worked on sound-recording cataloging at a desk in the left back corner, and the rest of the nonprofessional staff were nearby.

I learned to catalog sitting in this workroom. Following the seminar on music librarianship, the specialization program concluded with a practicum. Ralph assigned me a stack of scores, and I worked on the description and access points at a table in the corner. Near the end of the day, he called me to his desk, and we reviewed my work, discussing each element, its punctuation, and its coding. It was a slow, careful process.

During one of our review sessions, I presented a problem I couldn’t resolve through my reading of AACR2 or the Library of Congress’s many rule interpretations. We discussed a few possible solutions then paused to think. Ralph said, “In the heat of the cataloging moment, what would you do?” I laughed, because the idea of heat—of heightened emotion, of anxiety-provoking pressure—seemed foreign to Ralph’s process. With him, there was no sense of urgency, or even a sense of time. Cataloging was an intellectual pursuit that should be allotted as much time as it needed. Carpenters say, “Measure twice, cut once,” and this was Ralph’s approach to cataloging. Time and resources are saved if work is done correctly the first time, and if work is worth doing, it’s worth doing right.

At Indiana, there was one OCLC terminal for use by the entire department, and this terminal was the point of entry for all cataloging records. Catalogers did their work on paper, and staff, working in shifts, keyed the data into OCLC using the terminal. For the time being, the data was used to print cards for card catalogs—like this card for the Paul Creston score I cataloged—but there was an expectation that someday the data would drive an online catalog.

With Ralph’s guidance, I contributed my first cataloging record to OCLC. When a score or sound recording was cataloged at IU, OCLC printed a set of cards and shipped them to the library for filing in the catalog under author, title, subject, and so forth. Hundreds of cards arrived from OCLC each week in long boxes, and students workers did the filing. Anyone filing cards in the catalog left them resting on top of the rod so a supervisor could check their work. When I saw Ralph that first time, that’s what he was doing.

In the late 1970s, librarians looked forward to the arrival of the online catalog. There would be no more filing and correcting cards. When online catalogs did become available in the early 1980s, only a small part of holdings had been input as MARC records, so the card catalog was still necessary, but it was no longer maintained. Most libraries set a “Day One” for their online catalog. All cataloging after that date was available only in the online catalog and everything earlier was still in the card catalog. For a search to be complete, users had to search both. Many years passed before the content of card catalogs were converted to MARC and the catalogs could be discarded or shipped to storage and forgotten.

A few months after I began my first job—in 1981, as a music cataloger at Northwestern University—I attended my first MLA annual meeting, and I learned that these meetings were where music librarians worked on the issues facing the profession: there were still kinks to be smoothed out in interpreting AACR2, and discussions were beginning about what music users would need in an online catalog.

At that time, the Library of Congress was a leader in the music-cataloging community. LC was the de facto national library and held a position of respect and authority. It had one of the largest music-cataloging staffs in the country, and they produced cataloging we relied on. At MLA annual meetings, LC staff reported at length on activities at the library, and they sat on all the committees related to bibliographic control.

By the early 1980s, music librarians were growing frustrated with the LC’s delays in implementing the MARC music format. LC continued to issue cataloging for music and sound recordings only on cards, and the delay meant more work for those librarians already cataloging online. LC didn’t begin distributing MARC records for its music cataloging until early 1984—eight years after the format had been published.

In the meantime, the music catalogers using OCLC had moved forward on their own and set the direction for the use of MARC. In 1976, a group of MLA members met several times with OCLC to advise them on music workforms, printing catalog cards, and input standards, which led to OCLC’s publication of guidelines for cataloging scores and sound recordings. Within a few years, shared music cataloging in OCLC had achieved critical mass.

In 1982, Richard Smiraglia was chair of MOUG, and Ralph was completing his third year as editor of the MOUG Newsletter, which had become an important resource for music catalogers. Catalogers turned to OCLC and MOUG for guidance in this new online environment. LC retained control over the development of cataloging standards and policy, but leadership in helping members of the catalog community adapt to new ways of doing their work fell to grassroots organizations like MOUG.

Between MLA meetings, Ralph and I stayed in touch through letters and phone calls, and we were early adopters of email. At first, sending email was more complicated than typing a letter and putting it in the mail. Because the computer terminal in my office at Northwestern was connected only to the cataloging system, to send email, I had to leave my office in the music library and walk several hundred yards to the main library, where there was a short, dark hallway with half a dozen VT100 terminals connected to a VAX mainframe a few buildings away.

Email accounts were available only by request, and I was among the first people in the library to get one. At lunchtime and on breaks, I walked through the library to the shadowy hallway to log into the VAX and check for new mail. During those early days, I got email only from Ralph, and I suspect he didn’t get much email from anyone but me.

By the end of the decade, a few hundred music librarians had email accounts and needed a way to communicate with each other. Ralph’s wife, Mary, was an IBM mainframe operator at IU, and in 1989, she installed the LISTSERV software on one of the computers she maintained. A few months later, MLA-L was the first email list to go live on her mainframe. Ralph invited me to join him in setting up and administering the list. Today, MLA-L has been in use for thirty-two years, and it has endured because it uses one of the few technologies that has remained unchanged since the 1980s: email. It’s simple and boring, but remarkably reliable.

Ralph and I served on the MLA board together in the late 1980s and early 1990s. After that, we stayed in touch, and our main point of contact was MLA-L. By the early 2000s, Ralph was sick and getting sicker. When I moved to the East Coast and remarried, I saw him only at the annual MLA meetings, when we’d have lunch together and talk at receptions. My wife met Ralph at the 2003 meeting in Austin. She immediately liked him, probably because he spoke to her earnestly, without ego or affect. That was the way he spoke to everyone, to library-school students and to library directors. Ralph’s words came out with intent and purpose, in their own time and without any uhs, ers, or hmms. His voice was low and rough, and his intonation was flat.

At MLA receptions, some people work the room strategically, and they spend no more than a few minutes with one person. I remember a former MLA president who greeted me at the opening reception and then as I talked they started scanning the room behind me in search of someone more important. Ralph was always satisfied talking to whoever was standing in front of him and often spent half an hour chatting with a first-time attendee who had wandered up to him having no idea who he was.

Ralph had no problem talking with me and my wife about his medical issues. Because my wife was a physician, she could read things between the lines of his narrative that I couldn’t see, and it wasn’t good. After one of these conversations, she told me she thought the doctors in Indianapolis had made some bad decisions when he first became ill. Later, as his condition worsened, he traveled to the Cleveland Clinic, where he got better care. Still, he was sick and wasn’t improving. He went through several rounds of chemotherapy. He lost weight and became frail.

Ralph and I always let each other know when we were traveling and would be unable to keep tabs on MLA-L. I sent him an email in December 2009 to let him know my plans for the winter holidays, but he didn’t reply. In January 2010, Sue Stancu wrote to let me know his condition was getting worse. I began drafting an obituary. On January 14th, Phil Ponella sent an email to several of us reporting that Ralph had died that morning. At Ralph’s request, there was no burial, funeral, or memorial service.

The tenth anniversary of Ralph’s death led me to think back on what was going on in the profession during that period when he had a great influence on me. The 1980s were transformational for librarianship. After decades of stasis in the way we did our work, there was disruption, and it happened at a pace that was exciting and challenging. There was more change in those ten years than there had been in the preceding fifty.

The transformation took place through technology, and the changes that started in the 1980s continued through the succeeding decades. The 1980s marked the beginning of a long transition from analog to digital that started with a move from paper to pixels—from the card catalog to the online catalog and from typed correspondence to email.

With the evolution of technology in the 1980s came changes in the roles librarians played in the profession. The scope of the impact of our work shifted from local to global. Ralph Papakhian started the decade standing in front of a card catalog that was seen and used by only the several dozen people walking into Indiana’s music library each day. By the end of the decade, his institution’s cataloging was seen, used, and enhanced by hundreds of people across the world. Imagine someone who enjoys singing in the shower being pushed up to the microphone in a vast, noisy arena. It’s comfortable for some but not for others. Shoved onto the global stage of OCLC, catalogers’ work was exposed, and they quickly established reputations. The work of some was gratefully adopted, while the work of others was shunned.

In the 1980s, technology began offering new the ways for users to access library collections and services. With content no longer tied to physical objects, we started down the path to remote access. As time passed, we were able to share this digital content in larger amounts and at faster speeds. Wired networks of the 1980s and 1990s evolved into wireless networks in the early 2000s, and finally into mobile networks. Computing devices shrank in size and were soon smaller than a paperback book. Once we were using portable devices on wireless networks, remote access blossomed and the locus of teaching, research, and work shifted from a specific place to any place. Resources and services that had been available only in the library before the 1980s were now in our pockets and purses in airports and bars.

Ten years ago, while sitting with my family in a noisy restaurant waiting for food to arrive, my younger son asked what song was blaring out of an overhead speaker. I pulled out my phone, and a few seconds later, I had the answer. My older son, who was then in his twenties, shook his head and said with a smirk, “There are no more mysteries.” Thanks to technology, there are fewer mysteries around the dinner table. It can settle scores but often kills conversation. Also, when we’re used to answering most questions easily, we can feel anxious when we encounter a question that can’t be answered. We start assuming there are quick answers to every question. Some people even end up accepting any answer just to avoid being left without an answer.

Easy information access has made us less patient when looking for answers. Maybe it’s time to step back and reconsider: there are benefits to encountering obstacles and having to take time to arrive at answers. Obstacles force us to pause. And they present opportunities to make other discoveries. Today I can learn about the canon that Joseph Haydn wrote in honor of Venanzio Rauzzini’s dog named Turk while sitting at the breakfast table. In 1978, when I was looking for this dog in the reference stacks at Indiana, the process was far slower, but I ended up learning about more than Haydn’s canon. As I pulled books from the shelf, I was being introduced to research tools, and I was learning how to use them. And while sitting at that long table surrounded by reference books, I saw, across the room, someone standing at the card catalog doing something strange and intriguing—something that would end up changing the course of my life.

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