DCPLive is a blog by library staff at the DeKalb County Public Library!

card catalogs

Once upon a time one of my graduate school professors gleefully recounted her days as a militant library science student (yeah, you never saw that phrase coming, didja?) at Columbia University in the ’60s.   She said the school administration’s biggest fear during all the unrest was, of all things, that students would destroy the university library’s master catalog, known in jargon as the shelf list.  Back in the day, as they say, it would have been too easy to destroy a shelf list–just pull the rods out, dump the drawers and kick the cards all over the place–thereby rendering a rich and extensive collection pretty much useless.  Sure, it could be reconstructed but doing so would take ages and a lot of people who knew their ABCs and understood the mysteries of either the Dewey Decimal classification system or the even more mysterious Library of Congress system.

I’ve had a love/hate relationship with card catalogs since I was a small child, when my children’s librarian, after making certain I had washed my hands, introduced me to the mysteries of looking up a book.  As I started my life in libraries I got more involved and the shine sort of wore off.  I still loved the smell of the cards, the sound of a drawer being pulled out and set with a thunk on the little pull out shelf and the feel of that honey brown wood.  I admired the elegance of tracings (the subject headings for each title) and was strangely comforted by the presence of the the shelf list that hulked behind the “staff only” doors of every system I ever worked in save one.  However, I was never so lost to the romance that I couldn’t see the ugly side, especially when I was  on my knees trying to scoop together the contents of several drawers that a frolicsome patron, no doubt in a brave attempt to amuse the staff, would dump at the end of a long Saturday.  My love for all that solid wood and perfectly sized cardstock died violently when I took a job at a major university and was presented with cases of retired shelf list cards.  My task was to pull all those elegant tracings, rendering the catalog accurate.  I felt like the miller’s daughter in Rumpelstiltskin, faced with a room full of straw to be spun into gold, but there was no crazy little man with a long beard to save me.  Nope.  That task took the better part of two years.  On-line catalogs have some drawbacks too, but they are here to stay, despite early predictions.  They offer more access points, are much easier to update and keep accurate and offer so much more information than their venerable predecessors.  They can even be browsed at 2:00 a.m. by folks in their jammies and scuffies.

Starting today, the DCPL catalog also contains, along with a record of holdings for books, music CDs, DVDs and Read-alongs, holdings for electronic content that we purchase.  A good portion of our budget has been trending towards electronic media the past few years and now it’s easier than ever to find.  Go on, try it out—go to the catalog on our homepage and look up Learning Express Library, home site for many on-line practice tests including the TOEFL.  Try  Assassination Vacation by Sarah Vowell and then follow the hotlink to other OverDrive products.   I think it’s all pretty cool and I’ll never, ever have to pick these records up off the floor.

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card-catalogPublic libraries have gotten great press lately as a way to save money and I’ve noticed a lot of new faces coming up to the information desk. These people look pleased but a little confused and they say, “I haven’t been to the library in a long time. I guess you all don’t have a card catalog any more.”

No, we don’t. I don’t know when DeKalb County Public Library switched (help me out here, DCPL oldtimers), but generally public libraries retired their card catalogs many years ago. The computer OPACs (that’s Online Public Access Catalogs) are an improvement over the little drawers in every way — except aesthetics and ambiance. Somehow libraries looked more ‘libraryish’ when the card catalogs lined the walls.

One of our prodigal patrons asked me, “What happened to all the cards and cabinets?”  The cards show up in crafts and in projects like Cartalog, a memorial to the card catalog created from salvaged University of Iowa catalog cards. Los Angeles Public Library lined an elevator shaft with the old cards, matching the card subjects with the department on each floor. The cabinets have been resold, recycled, and repurposed. I’ve found old card catalogs used as coffee tables, kitchen storage units and sewing room cabinets. A quick search on eBay turned up a few card catalogs, all with multiple bids, so they are very collectible.

If you’d like to extend your trip down library memory lane, check out The Library History Buff. It’s a fascinating collection of librariana, and there’s a section on card catalogs. Sigh. Now I miss them.

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