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A Lifetime Wildcat

In 63 years at Northwestern, James Aagaard made his mark as student, professor and staff member

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May 9, 2011 | by Matt Paolelli

James Aagaard came to Northwestern as a freshman in the fall of 1948…and he never left.

During his 63 years as a Wildcat, Aagaard wore many hats, but his greatest contribution was the creation of an online cataloging system for the University Library in 1970 that revolutionized the way libraries manage their collections. At its peak, half of the largest research libraries in the United States used the Northwestern Online Total Integrated System (NOTIS), including Harvard and Yale universities.

When Aagaard officially retired in April, his library coworkers organized a celebration to honor his legacy and created a Wikipedia page to commemorate NOTIS.

“We cannot understate this, because, of course, Jim would understate this, but he permanently changed the path of this library and hundreds of other libraries around the country and even in the world,” said University Librarian Sarah Pritchard.

“I could talk for a long time about how amazing the development of NOTIS was, particularly given the hardware and the software constraints at the time that it was developed,” added David Bishop, University librarian emeritus. “This was the golden age of library management systems, and NOTIS was clearly the leader.”

The University sold the award-winning system to Ameritech in 1991.

“There are two multi-million dollar endowments that were generated from the income from the sale of NOTIS,” Bishop said. “One supports the collections, and the other supports technology, and this is something that is going to have an impact on the library forever.”

While NOTIS is Aagaard’s most well-known contribution to the University, the rest of his resume also is impressively purple. The Rogers Park native who never intended to become a “Northwestern lifer” made the most of opportunities that ultimately kept him in Evanston for the course of his career.

He earned bachelor’s, master’s and Ph.D. degrees in electrical engineering, taught during his graduate school years and became a Northwestern faculty member in 1957.

Despite teaching courses on electronics, Aagaard’s research leaned in the direction of computer science and software development -- a field that was just beginning to find a home at Northwestern.

“I ended up working half-time as a systems supervisor at the Vogelback Computing Center,” he said. “I did that for three or four years and then the NOTIS opportunity with the library popped up.”

With construction of University Library under way in 1968, library administrators wanted the new facility to take advantage of the latest in computer technology. Associate University Librarian John McGowan hired Aagaard and systems analyst Velma Veneziano to design a system that would organize the new library’s diverse collections and track the circulation of its materials. Using Aagaard’s software, NOTIS came online as a catalog system in 1970, with other services rolling out later.

After the sale of NOTIS, Aagaard remained at the library in a variety of capacities for the remainder of his career. As an assistant University librarian, he guided the library through many technological changes during the early 1990s.

Aagaard and his wife, Mary Lou -- whom he met at Northwestern – also have been financial supporters of the University, donating funds to the library and the McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science.

Although he is finally retiring, Aagaard’s renowned workaholic ways will not disappear immediately.

“Certainly for a few months I’ll be around,” he said. “I have 40 years’ worth of accumulation of ‘stuff’ to deal with.”