25 August 2014

The Card Catalog

Another version of this column first appeared in the ALLUNY Newsletter: http://www.aallnet.org/chapter/alluny/2014-02summer.pdf

“The catalog doesn’t exist any more.”

I was shocked to hear the librarian, at a public special library, say this, since I was asking how to access location information for print material in their collections.

Of course, she didn’t mean that the library no longer maintains an organized record of holdings—do away with that and the library stops being a library. What she meant was that there is no longer a physical record. The catalog is online now. And this was the problem: accessing collection information required computer access, and computer access was restricted—making it impossible for me to simply find and copy the article I needed. Lesson? There should always be at least one terminal dedicated exclusively to unencumbered catalog access.

It wasn’t always like this. Once upon a time, hulking cabinets containing cards that described the collection held prominent reign over libraries, and our searches were limited to the title, author, and subject fields. I had a part in the change, too. My first library job, at the public library branch down the street, was transcribing catalog records from those cards for inclusion in a system-wide union catalog on CD-ROM. And I love both the convenience and utility of a good OPAC, which can provide much faster, more targeted results—from my couch—than the old drawers of cards ever did. Still, removing those old cabinets made the library feel a little less magical.

So when I learned that Syracuse University was making the sixty-drawer Gaylord Brothers catalog cabinets from their Science and Technology Library available a few years ago, I jumped at the chance to get one. It has lived in my living room ever since, storing small house-hold items and reminding me of the hard work underlying the magic of what we do, as well as the magic that hard work makes possible.

But my wife and I came to Central New York so she could pursue a Ph.D. Well, she caught it, and has now taken a faculty position at the University of Maryland. We moved to the DC area this summer. Our new space is much smaller and the catalog would not fit, so it has found a new home. I will miss its magical bulk, even though everything it once contained is now available online.

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