After over a quarter century of devoted bibliographic service, the time has come to bid farewell to Hamnet, the Folger Shakespeare Library’s first OPAC (“Online Public Access Catalog”). Hamnet officially retires tonight, at the end of the last day of the Folger fiscal year. Earlier Collation posts (on 28 April and 1 June 2022) talk about the new Folger catalog, and you can visit it in person at catalog.folger.edu, but today’s post is all about nostalgia.
Hamnet first appeared on the web in 1999 (or “the World Wide Web” as it was commonly called at the time). It looked sleek and modern, free from the cheesy clipart and text-heavy design of many contemporary sites.1
For those of you who haven’t already done the arithmetic or counted it out on your fingers, let me point out that 1999 wasn’t “over a quarter century” ago. That’s because Hamnet’s debut on the web was its second public appearance. Back in the summer of 1996, when Hamnet appeared for the first time, it was “online” (accessible by connecting to a central computer) but not “on the web” (accessible by connecting to a central computer via a browser at an http address).2 You could only access it on-site at the Folger, using a proprietary software program installed on a Windows computer.
I’m sure there’s an image of the original Hamnet screen somewhere in a newsletter in the Folger Archives, but everything is still safely stowed away because of the ongoing building renovation. The best I can do today is show a screenshot of the Library of Congress’s later implementation of the same program.
Why was the Folger’s OPAC called “Hamnet”? On a practical level, it’s just a Shakespeare-themed pun: William Shakespeare’s son was named Hamnet, and “net” was the trendy suffix before “e” and “i” prefixes took over (off the top of my Gen X head: telnet, ARPAnet, USENET, UUnet, Ethernet, Bitnet, and of course, Internet). The other reason was peer pressure. When the point-and-click OPACs of the 1990s succeeded the command-line library catalogs of the 1980s, institutions needed a way to differentiate the fancy new Graphical User Interface catalog from the plain text online catalog that people were accustomed to using. Even libraries like the Folger, which went straight from a card catalog to a second-generation online catalog (or third generation, depending on who’s counting) named their OPACs. In my own research from that time, I know I used Socrates (Stanford), Melvyl (Berkeley), Virgo (University of Virginia), CatNYP (New York Public Library), and Corsair (the Morgan) among others.
Like many of those other libraries, the Folger continued to make the OPAC client available through on-site computer terminals in parallel with the web version. The web version was more modern looking, and easier to learn to use, but it didn’t allow for the same degree of complicated precision searching that was possible in the client.3 The first version of the web design also suffered from making the records hard to read. Low contrast between the words and the background meant you had to squint (especially if you were on a fancy new monitor, where Hamnet’s 1024 x 700 pixel size took up only part of the screen instead of staring you in the face).
Here’s the same record as seen today, in the second web version of Hamnet, which launched April 30, 2002:
The fact that Hamnet had the same web design for 20 years is extraordinary. The labels and buttons were tweaked over the years in response to user feedback, but a wholesale redesign without improving the overall functionality seemed like the proverbial lipstick on a pig.4 In fact, moving to a new framework back then would have been a step backward in functionality, as discussed in the “Invitation to preview our new catalog” Collation post in April. Huge credit goes to the Folger’s Researcher Services staff for all the help and training they provided to users of what had become an antiquated system. For what it’s worth, the staff interface hadn’t even advanced that far. Here’s the current Acquisitions screen:
Despite the system’s decrepitude, and despite the huge gains in functionality and ease-of-use of the new catalog and Integrated Library System, today is bittersweet for me. I’ve been working with Hamnet and the Voyager “back end” ever since I came to the Folger in March 2000. It would be an exaggeration that it involved blood, toil, tears, and sweat to maintain the system (there was no blood), but I’m proud of having learned to write advanced SQL queries to get information out of the complex relational database that could only be accessed from the staff side. Now, those advanced queries can be done by anyone (or any authorized staff member when it comes to confidential data).
Today marks a moment of significant advancement for the Folger, but part of me will miss my constant companion. Happy retirement, Hamnet!5
- The main Folger website, still more or less in its original 1996 design, even had an animated quill pen writing out the word “Email” as a link at the bottom.
- Some sources say that Hamnet launched in 1997. That’s because it launched in Fiscal Year 1997, which actually began July 1, 1996.
- Putting my Gen X hat back on, and shaking my fist, I’ll point out that this is true in general of web interfaces. It was great not to have to install separate computer programs anymore, and it was great that there was a much lower barrier to entry (no more thick manuals that had to be read before you could accomplish much of anything), but the advanced functionality disappeared.
- It is only just now, as I’m writing this, that I remembered the pink stuffed toy pig “Hamnet” mascot that used to sit in the alcove with the computer terminals!
- I would like to thank Deborah J. Leslie, Emily Wahl, and Sara Schliep (my colleagues in the Collection Description Team) and Julie Swierczek (Associate Librarian for Collection Description and Imaging) for holding my hand and helping me to write this post.
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I share your nostalgia, Erin, hoping that the new system will live up to, indeed surpass, the functionality of the old. Best wishes, Steve
Steve May — June 30, 2022