Photo: Mark Buckawiki. Source: Wikimedia
I remember going to the library in elementary school. We used to spend hours learning how to use the card catalog system. Every book had three cards: a title card, an author card, and a subject card. The card would reference the book’s location on the shelves, organized either by the Dewey Decimal or Library of Congress systems. Those card files took up a lot of space, but it was a lot easier thumbing through library cards than wandering around the stacks.
Library catalogs were part of the Enlightenment, the notion that all knowledge could be classified and put into a system. The card files were a 19th century innovation that was adopted as public libraries became widespread, a simple way to classify and sort the volumes. Now, of course, we just type the book’s data into a library computer, or online, and we find all kinds of information in just a few seconds. The old cabinets are something between curiosities and scrap wood – a little like physical books themselves.
Times change, and the space that these cabinets occupied – prime space at the center of most libraries – has been put to other uses. Some libraries use the space to display important or timely books, some use it for a café, or for another sort of resource center. People may feel nostalgic about card catalogs, but they required a lot of maintenance and care themselves, resources that can be better used elsewhere. People may feel nostalgic for those musty, faded cards, but it’s more efficient, convenient, and accurate to have online access to an online catalog.
The card catalog is just one more casualty of the information revolution. The cards served a larger mission: helping people find the books and other information they need. There are always losses in any transition – the custom annotations, the beautifully crafted cabinets, and clerical errors in the new listings – but time and technology march forward. We’re just not always sure which way things are going.
Douglas R. Tengdin, CFA
Charter Trust Company
“The Best Trust Company in New England”