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All hail the card catalog!

Card Catalog with all the drawers open and empty.Yesterday, I attended what I have been calling the event of the year: a panel program at the Library of Congress program celebrating the publication of The Card Catalog: Books, Cards, and Literary Treasures, by Peter Devereaux, writer and editor at the Library’s Publishing Office.

I love the card catalog. It takes me back to the days when I first became a librarian. I was a cataloger — and not just any cataloger, a serials cataloger, which was more peculiar. Sadly, back then, being a catalog librarian was thought to be somewhat second rate. The general consensus was that if you were a cataloger, you probably had some kind of nervous condition or were “not good with people.” For most librarians, cataloging was punishment and, indeed, many catalogers were locked up in the basement of the library building without a single window. Of course, all of this changed when catalogers changed their title (inside joke) to “metadata” librarians. That job title linked catalogers to digital technology (something much trendier than AACR2) and really changed the profession. For instance, metadata librarians were paid more.

I was pleasantly surprised to see that the program attracted quite a crowd of fellow oddballs — it was standing room only. Excellent panelists — Beacher Wiggins, Kathy Woodrell and Barbara Orbach Natanson from the Library, and Christopher Cronin from University of Chicago Library and Jennifer Baxmeyer from Princeton University Library — had the audience laughing as they discussed the olden days peppered with curious facts about Cutter, Dewey and former Library employees who played major roles in creating machine readable cataloging.

I learned that Thomas Jefferson started the Library’s catalog system devising a method for his own library—a library that made up the entire Library of Congress for a time after the British destroyed by fire much of the Library’s original collection. Before the typewriter, catalogers wrote cards in “library hand,” legible penmanship that was taught in library school. Library users would occasionally rip cards out of the catalog drawer—I have witnessed this—and for convenience take them on the way to the stacks, confirming the truism: “a lost card is a lost item.” Henriette Avram, a computer scientist who worked at the Library, created the MARC standard to automate the printing of catalog cards. The good thing about MARC was that it eventually led to the online catalog. Unfortunately, only libraries used the MARC format leading to all kinds of problems with interoperability.A diagram of the card catalog and what it does.

The Library of Congress closed its card catalog in 1980, moving it and its 22 million cards to Deck 16 and 33 of the Jefferson Building. Now the card catalog is retro and used for art, storage and furniture. One can buy old card catalogs and store wine bottles in the drawers and use the backs of old catalog cards for recipes. Or one can buy a wine humidor and keep their recipes on Pinterest. Some faculty still miss the old card catalog. They had learned how the catalog works around the time students were studying computer science (usually within the math department) and walking the halls with a stack of big punched cards. One speaker noted that the physical-ness of rows after rows of card catalogs gave one a sense of how much information was available, something today we can no longer fathom.

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Carrie Russell

Carrie Russell is the director of the Program on Public Access to Information in the Washington Office. Her portfolio includes copyright, international copyright, accessibility, e-books, and other public policy issues. She has an MLIS from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and an MA in media arts from the University of Arizona.

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