Library's Computer Program - Press Article
There is an associated story that goes with the picture, part of which is about the project that I did with it, and part of which is about the computer itself. I have described both parts below, but please do feel free to use your excellent editorial skills to pick out anything relevant for your archive story. You will note that it is exactly 36 years ago right to the day, when that article was published in the local newspaper!
In the summer of 1984 I had written a simple cataloguing BASIC program for the school Commodore PET computer, and entered a section of the library catalogue into it, which the school was trialling in the library that year. I was 16 then, had just finished my O level's at Stewards Comprehensive School in Harlow. Because I was between school and college, I needed a project to work on over summer.
Computers in libraries was not really a thing back in 1984, mostly because there was only one computer for the whole school, and that was owned by the maths department. This original simple program created quite a storm, and some friendly tension between the maths department and the library, because the library wanted to keep borrowing the computer from them to keep their catalogue up to date.
In 1985/1986 I was studying my A level's at Harlow College, and one of the teachers there (Tony Judge) was in the process of finishing up at the college and setting up an educational computing department at a local computer supplier, Akhter Computers Ltd, in Harlow. I had told him about the work that I had been doing with the school on the library catalogue and our problem with sharing the computer between two departments. At that time, a new computer was far too expensive for the school to justify.
Tony had a head for a good business opportunity, and arranged a business meeting between Akhter and Stewards School, and I was invited. I was only 16 at the time and petrified about it all! But it was a good meeting and he basically explained how in his new role at Akhter he was looking for educational projects to support. He introduced us to a brand new computer that he had on evaluation, the Sanyo MBC 550, which was much cheaper than the Commodore PET that we already used, and he said he thought it was going to be a big hit in schools due to both it's price, and that it was 'mostly PC compatible'.
The school librarian, Zinnia Knapman, really saw how she could expand the reach and efficiency of the library with a proper computer system that belonged to them, and that night she discussed funding with the school management and got a green-light to go ahead, as long as the price was right. Tony saw to that, and he got us a great discount, as long as we mentioned his company in any publicity that we did about the project.
A week later, I was called into a discussion with the deputy head, another petrifying experience for a young 16 year old, where he told me that the funds had been organised and that the school had decided that (subject to approval from my parents), the computer would be delivered directly to my house and I would be the custodian of the new computer until the program that I was to write for it was completed. Mum and Dad agreed to it, and they even helped me clear off a space on my bench at home and Dad carried it up the stairs for me.
Over the summer break and winter months and right through Christmas, I designed a full library cataloguing program for the Sanyo. The program had to support two types of book references, an 'Accession number' for books that the school owned, and a second, more complex, library catalogue number for books that were on temporary loan from Essex County Council libraries.
The latter numbering scheme caused some considerable headaches and my database skills at the time were still evolving as I was studying computing at the college. On Christmas Eve 1985 I had a long telephone call with Zinnia the librarian explaining how I couldn't work out how to make all the Essex County Council numbers fit into the database, because they didn't seem to fit into the naive indexing system I had designed (the Sanyo was programmed in BASIC and had no supporting software like a database management system, and no applications for it, just a BASIC interpreter).
Fortunately, Zinnia's husband was an IT consultant, and he spent some time on the phone explaining to me how to use an indexed sequential scheme to store the library catalogue, and I spent the whole of Christmas 1985 getting the new system in and working.
The Sanyo MBC550, at the time, was advertised as a PC compatible computer (IBM PC Compatible). It transpired throughout the project, that the level of compatibility it actually achieved was not quite what we had hoped. It had a version of BASIC on it that was mostly standard, and a modified version of MS-DOS that mostly worked. However, the on board BIOS chips were different, the disk drives would not read disks from other computers, and the screen was a non-standard size and colour depth compared to an IBM computer. There was also not really any standard software that would run on it.
I wrote the whole database management system from scratch, in BASIC, using just the low level file read and write services, and had to build all the indexing, searching, inserting and deleting logic from first principles. This was as well as writing a complete application with data entry screens, entry validation code, error checking code, messages and form layouts.
At the time I also had a part-time job in the local Sainsbury's store, and I had just joined up for a scheme to work with their new stock control computer, an ICL System 25 mini-computer. My job on every Saturday was to get hand-annotated computer printouts from all the department managers, and enter stock-order adjustments into the computer before 9pm, when an automated task at head office would dial-in over a MODEM and collect the adjustments for the next day's order. This method of stock ordering was based on a system originally designed many years earlier for the LEO Computer and the Lyons tea company, and was still in use.
The stock entry system had a very distinctive forms-based entry system, where a screen would appear with empty boxes that you filled in; short of time to invent a new design for a whole look and feel for a library catalogue system for the school, I completely modelled the library catalogue system screens on how the Sainsbury's stock entry system worked. This included a little flashing light that told you when it was safe to enter new information or when the computer was busy processing it.
The BASIC program for the Sanyo computer turned into many thousands of lines of computer code, and I used a well organised scheme of subroutines that started at line numbers on a boundary of 100 lines each, and I kept a printed catalogue of all the numbered entry points of each of the routines throughout the project. This organised set of numbered entry points is what we would today call an API - an Application Programming Interface, because it provided all the standard services for database management, forms processing, screen layout, error checking, and business logic.
The Sanyo computer had a special button called BREAK in the top corner that would stop the program from running so you could edit it or run it again, and it made an annoying 'buzz' sound whenever you pressed it. This used to disturb my parents when they were trying to sleep and I was up late finishing the program, I think I might have taken the top off of the computer and disconnected the speaker wire at the time, so that I could continue programming late into the night!
By early 1986 the program was mostly completed and I had a meeting with ZInnia the librarian, and the deputy head.
They were very pleased with the demo I gave them of the program, and then they asked me the question I was dreading 'how will we get all the catalogue entered'? I already knew that it was going to be difficult to transfer data from the Commodore PET computer due to disk incompatibilities.
Zinnia, ever the optimist said "It's ok, David has done such a fantastic job of all the data entry system, we can get together an army of third years and they will take it in turns to enter different parts of the catalogue" - and that's how the data entry system was solved with "crowd sourcing"!. I wrote a program on the Commodore PET that would print out the existing catalogue between a range of index numbers, and third year students worked over lunch breaks and after school and gradually entered the whole catalog for us.
In April 1986 the program was finished and working, and most of the catalogue of books had been entered. Zinnia got in touch with the local newspaper, the Harlow Star, and said "A lady from the Harlow Star will ring you tonight, tell her about your work". I remember answering the questions on the phone, and just at the end of the conversation the journalist asked me "is there anything else you want to add to the story?" and I remembered Tony telling me that as part of the deal with Akhter we must mention them in any publicity, and we got that bit in at the last minute.
The following day, a photographer came over to the school and I had the day off of college to have my photo taken with Zinnia and the Sanyo computer in the school library - we loaded the program up and left it on the title screen for the photo, and Zinnia said 'hang on, let me get a book' and she grabbed the first book she could find behind her, we posed, and the photo was taken.
For the next few months, I visited the school regularly to make sure that everything was working, and I even had arranged a 'progression plan' for supporting the system; I explained to the science technician, Peter King, how all the program worked and he was going to take on maintenance of the program while I continued my college studies. I also trained up one of the 3rd year students who was helping with the data entry, on how to backup and repair disks, access hidden menus for book maintenance, and generally operate the system. He trained up some other 3rd year students in various parts of the system, and our technology transfer was completed!
The Sanyo MBC 550 was an interesting computer to use, it was definitely "like a PC, but not quite compatible"; we had to write everything ourselves as there was no standard software available for it, and none of the standard IBM PC software would work on it. It was a lot cheaper than other computers at the time, and having two floppy disk drives was vital to us, because one disk held the program, and the other disk held the data. The documentation that came with it was well written, and I remember it had a book all about the computer and it's operating system, and a separate book about the BASIC programming language.
Looking back at this 36 years later in retrospect, it is obvious to me that I should have used this project as my A level computing project - I got a good mark in my A level, but I think I would have got a much better mark with the library project, because it involved a real customer with a real problem to solve. The power of hindsight is a wonderful thing - I always advise school and college students these days embarking on a computing project, to have a real customer for their project.
17th April 2022 (exactly 36 years, to the day, after the Harlow Star article was published)Date : 17th April 1986
This exhibit has a reference ID of CH67924. Please quote this reference ID in any communication with the Centre for Computing History.