19 July 2017

For librarians (and ex-librarians)

When I was in college I earned my spending money working as a librarian (and had a room quite
literally above the library).  So I was delighted to see a review in the Washington Post discussing a new book about... card catalogs.
This book about card catalogues, written and published in cooperation with the Library of Congress, is beautifully produced, intelligently written and lavishly illustrated. It also sent me into a week-long depression. If you are a book lover of a certain age, it might do the same to you.

“The Card Catalog” is many things: a lucid overview of the history of bibliographic practices, a paean to the Library of Congress, a memento of the cherished card catalogues of yore and an illustrated collection of bookish trivia. The text provides a concise history of literary compendiums from the Pinakes of the fabled Library of Alexandria to the advent of computerized book inventory databases, which began to appear as early as 1976. The illustrations are amazing: luscious reproductions of dozens of cards, lists, covers, title pages and other images guaranteed to bring a wistful gleam to the book nerd’s eye.

For someone who grew up in and around libraries, it is also a poignant reminder of a vanished world.

Now, waxing nostalgic about card catalogues or being an advocate for the importance of libraries is a mug’s game. You can practically feel people glancing up from their iPhones to smile tolerantly at your eccentricity. My response to this, after an initial burst of profanity, is to explain (again) why libraries are essential to narrowing the inequality gap, and why the Internet is not an adequate substitute for books or libraries.

“The Card Catalog” is a heady antidote to the technophilia threatening our culture. The book is especially illuminating on the powerful, if overlooked, properties of the humble catalogue card, some 79 million of which were printed annually at the system’s peak in 1969. Each one is a perfect melding of design and utility, a marvel of informational compression and precision.
After college, while I was in graduate school, I started my own "card catalogue," visiting a university library weekly to transcribe references in professional journals onto literally tens of thousands of 3"x5" lined cards, which I filed in cabinets in my office - a handy source for information in the preparation of lectures.  Then the internet arrived...

I'll close this post with a quote from Annie Proulx:
I mourn the loss of the old card catalogs, not because I’m a Luddite, but because the oaken trays of yesteryear offered the researcher an element of random utility and felicitous surprise through encounters with adjacent cards, information by chance that is different in kind from the computer’s ramified but rigid order.
I've requested this new book from our local library (only 4 people ahead of me on the wait list).

Photo (of the University of Wisconsin-Madison Memorial Library card catalog) via Librarianista.

21 comments:

  1. As a relatively young librarian (early 30's) I can still remember card catalogs, early OPAC's (the green and black monitor and keyboard input only), and now discovery platforms and other modern trappings. I think they all have their place - a lot of work in designing current catalogs and websites includes trying to create ways for serendipity and discovery to happen. I never liked using paper card catalogs but I understand the nostalgia and benefit of co-location. Offsite storage of material also leads to problems browsing material.

    Also, it's nit-picky but I assume in college you worked as a library assistant as most librarians have an MLS (or similar).

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. You're correct that I shouldn't have referred to myself as a "librarian." I was a part-time worker in a house library on campus; as the only staff member in the library during my shifts, I would have been (incorrectly) referred to as "the librarian" by the students.

      Delete
  2. I'm going to be honest, as much as I love books and libraries, I do NOT miss the card catalog in any way.

    ReplyDelete
  3. I use 8 feet of those card catalogs to support one side of the work table in my shop, it's amazing what they'll hold.

    ReplyDelete
  4. I think you're an honorary libertarian. Don't let anyone tell you differently.

    Wonderful read.

    ReplyDelete
  5. I too worked in the library in hight school and college. Periodicals. Ahhhh, the smell of the card catalog. I hate that I've never found one for my home. I love the idea of them living on as shop legs.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Images for "card catalog furniture" -

      https://www.google.com/search?q=card+catalog+furniture&tbm=isch&tbo=u&source=univ&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwj73Jvy5ZfVAhUi7IMKHevKAtUQsAQIwQE

      Delete
    2. Yes, I also have the steel type holding up my bench for grinders and sanders. They are wonderful.

      Delete
    3. The best movie about librarians (and other things). Party Girl (1995). Minnesotastan, I have a feeling you will enjoy it...

      David Carney, RN

      Delete
  6. I too was a librarian in college--worked the periodical desk, which I loved! In periodicals, the equivalent to the card catalog was the Reader's Guide to Periodic Literature, which hasn't been published in book form for at least half a decade. Don't even know if there's an on-line version.



    But as for the card catalog, I always regarded it as the central nervous system of the library. To see the file cabinets removed and replaced with computers (which didn't work half the time), was heart-wrenching. In general, I prefer systems that don't rely on electricity and computers for proper functioning, as these systems break down more frequently and have more glitches. I always seem to imagine a future where the electric goes off and we are rendered helpless.

    ReplyDelete
  7. I also worked my way through school at our library - i worked in cataloging and typed thousands of those cards. I miss browsing through the drawers...

    ReplyDelete
  8. I'm a library tech at a small Florida state college, and while we no longer have a physical card catalog, we still use the old cards to train how to read the LOC numbers and shelf books in proper order. While I understand the nostalgic yearning for the old system, the on-line version is convenient. I love that I can see(and request)not only what's available at our libraries, but 27 other Florida colleges as well.

    ReplyDelete
  9. You might also enjoy Double Fold: Libraries and the Assault on Paper, by Nicholson Baker.
    And here's Baker's essay on card catalogues, which first appeared in The New Yorker: http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/1994/04/04/discards

    ReplyDelete
  10. BTW, for those who bemoan the loss of the "browsing" function when card catalogs disappear, check your library's website more carefully. Ours I would bet is not untypical in that it offers a "browse the shelf" link for each book/DVD/etc (in each library in the system) to let you see what is to the left and right of the book/DVD etc you are looking for.

    ReplyDelete
  11. AWWK! There was an obvious misspelling in the title for two days and nobody noticed it. What happened to all my volunteer poofreaders? (fixed...)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I think many people noticed it, but were too polite to point it out. Or just did not want to be THAT guy who is the spelling Nazi...

      Delete
    2. Yes, spelling Nazis and punctuation Nazis are so distracting. We know what you mean without them.

      Delete
    3. Au contraire. I appreciate having errors pointed out to me, and there are several copyeditors on board who are not reluctant to do so. That's why my back posts are for the most part grammatically clean and free of typos.

      Delete
    4. Despite your desire for "a clean archive" it doesn't jibe with digital age with it's mis-typings and autocorrects make for amusing yet still legible reading.

      Delete
  12. I loved finding things I wasn't looking for in the card catalogue! As for errors, I used to give my students extra credit if they caught me making an error, which of course I did intentionally, just to see if they were paying attention.

    ReplyDelete
  13. A similar transformation has happened in the museum studies world (often mistakenly treated as the same thing as library science by outsiders). Our card catalogs are of specimens and localities rather than books, but we've also shifted to digital catalogs being the primary source of information. It's simply much better in terms of searchability, time for entry, funding needed to make each card, fixing like errors, etc... Ideally, we would retain both, though, as having digital and analog catalogs makes it less likely that a disaster completely wipes all your records. But the sad fact of the matter is that there aren't enough time, resources, or people to keep up with both. Not even to keep up with one, actually, as museums are chronically understaffed and underfunded. So it's rare to find a museum card catalog that continues to be maintained. I do advocate for keeping the old catalogs, though, as a partial backup and simply for historical purposes. On top of scanning them in to create an additional digital image archive of them.

    ReplyDelete

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...