The Untold Story of Innovator Bonnie Nelson’s Contribution to Academic Freedom & Tech

By Kathleen Collins

In 1980, Bonnie Nelson was at the forefront of library technology.

At the time, Nelson was John Jay College’s newest librarian, and she was tasked with helping President Gerry Lynch conduct research. Using a phone to connect to a mainframe computer located in some faraway location, Nelson conducted a very slow search using precise Boolean language and controlled subject headings in Dialog, just to come up with a list of bibliographic references that she would then locate on the library shelves or on microfilm—if she was lucky. It sounds cumbersome and archaic now, but what Nelson was doing was groundbreaking. Never before had people been able to search for information so easily.

Nelson’s interest in technology developed early in life. As a Bronx High School of Science student, she took a class in computer programming, and at the time, that class was enough to prepare her for a position as a librarian at NYU where they were implementing a new computerized circulation system. Later, after attending library school at Columbia University and getting a second Master’s degree in Anthropology, she was eventually hired for a position at John Jay College’s library.

At the time of her hire, the library at John Jay was implementing a new circulation system—using punch cards. “That was old technology even at the time,” says Nelson, “and they were desperate to have someone who knew something about computers.”

With Nelson’s help, the college eventually began to catch up with changing times, and they were able to implement the first student lab. In 1984, the Department of Education awarded the College a grant that included IBM microcomputers. Nelson was charged with administering the grant.

“In December, we got this big delivery of twenty microcomputers, and they were put in this room that was going to be the computer lab. But it didn’t have a lock yet and security didn’t have enough staff to protect the machines, ” said Nelson. Nelson ended up spending that New Year’s Eve guarding the new computers. Later, she and fellow librarian Kathy Killoran (now Executive Academic Director in Undergraduate Studies) set up what was either the first or second CUNY library connection to the Internet.

With the computer lab open for use, Nelson soon found herself helping students find information they would use towards their studies, which often related to criminal justice or public service. “I helped someone in fire science find out the temperature at which blood boils,” said Nelson. “They needed to know how hot was too hot for firefighters to go in before blood could no longer deliver the oxygen. There were these very gross searches, and I thought, wow, working at John Jay, this is really different!”

In addition to her contribution to technology as a librarian for four decades, Nelson made significant contributions to academic freedom. “There were attempts to censor what faculty were seeing [on the Internet] and what they could search for,” said Nelson, of her work in the years leading up to the mid 2000’s. “They put software on computers in libraries so you couldn’t freely search. Some libraries in CUNY did that, but we fought that off at John Jay. We felt it was a great attack on academic freedom, particularly at a place where faculty were researching terrorist organizations, murder, pedophiles, sex crimes, etc.”

After 9/11, the FBI began visiting libraries – including once to John Jay – and demanding records of computer users to identify suspicious activity. “We always fought that because we wanted the students and faculty to be able to be anonymous,” said Nelson.

Though the tech world continues to be dominated by men, there have always been women making innovative gains and paving the way for others to come. Bonnie Nelson, who set a high bar as a librarian and advocate for technology and academic freedom, is one of many more to follow.

Kathleen Collins has been a librarian at John Jay since 2007. Read her full profile of Bonnie Nelson here.

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