By Stephen J. Greenberg ~
There was a time, not so very long ago, when card catalogues were pretty much synonymous with libraries. You really could not imagine one without the other. As late as the 1960s, some library buildings were architecturally designed around their physical catalogues. The current main building of the National Library of Medicine is a good example.
The move away from such catalogues began a long time ago. Henriette Davidson Avram, working with a team at the Library of Congress in the late 60s, developed the MARC format that would pave the way for all future computerized library catalogues. It has now been over thirty years since NLM removed its main card catalogue, although some remnants persist. After all, no major research library ever had just one card catalogue; there were always several, all for different purposes. Cards were the physical manifestation of the collective librarian memory, and there were a LOT of things to remember.
The retrospective conversion of most card catalogues to electronic formats, and the overall passage of time, have made it increasingly necessary to describe to younger visitors what a card catalogue is (or rather, was). There are, however, some of us still in the profession who remember cards, if not always fondly. One needed specialized training to type cards. It was an art in itself, and it has become a lost one. Particularized use of standard punctuation marks, initials, and seemingly bizarre use of spacing were all part of the cataloguers’ codebook. Nothing was ever random, however. The seemingly idiosyncratic spacing and punctuation allowed the cataloguer, and the informed researcher, to identify the author and title on a given card, even if the language and the character set were strange to the user. Going back even further, when cards were handwritten, special penmanship had to be learned, a throwback (even then) to the late Middle Ages, when each royal government office had a prescribed script. One could identify the source of the document simply by recognizing the script style (for example, the so-called “Chancery Hand”).
There are tales to be told that are rapidly fading to folklore. Even casual users of old catalogues are aware that the cards don’t fall out of the drawers, even if the drawer is inverted, although flipping the drawers is a cheap thrill when giving a tour to the uninitiated. The reason is simple. Each card has a hole neatly punched through its center, at the bottom of the card. A long brass rod, running the depth of the card drawer, goes through the hole and secures the cards in place. The rod is removed to add a new card, and that is where the folklore comes in. Novice cataloguers were once directed to put their new cards in the proper place in the drawer, but NOT to remove the rod until their work could be checked by more senior staff. This was called “cataloguing above the rod.” When the newbie could be trusted to get it right without supervision, there were permitted to “drop” their cards right in: “cataloguing below the rod.” Who will remember THAT in fifty years?
On purely bibliographic grounds, it is hard to be nostalgic for card catalogues. For simple searching in an unfamiliar field, they cannot compete with a modern online catalogue. In a traditional card catalogue, a simple book would be represented on several cards: an author card (usually the “Main Entry,” of which more in a minute), a title card, and subject cards, maybe three to six per book. If one knew the proper terms for your topic (the “controlled vocabulary”), one could usually get a good start on any research project. If one didn’t know the precise terminology, there might be “see’ or “see also” notes to guide one along. But sometimes, the subjects could be maddeningly elusive. Variant ways of spelling or even word arrangement could lead to frustration, and not a few jokes funny only to librarians. One old chestnut is the proper way to index the Holy See (also called the See or Diocese of Rome, which is the jurisdiction of the bishop of Rome, AKA the pope). Does the noun come first, or the adjective? Traditional cataloguing leads to the lovely note, directing the researcher to the proper heading: “See, Holy. see Holy See.”
Cards have the problem of a very limited number of searchable fields. One cannot search a card catalogue to locate all of the Paris imprints from 1745 (for example). But assuming one can search the appropriate fields in the computer record, it’s easy to do that search with an online catalogue. And therein lies the rub of any comparison between cards and computers: cards are only searchable using the strategies already put in place when the cards were typed. No new search strategy can be created, nor can multiple searches be combined. There’s no Boolean searching with cards. With computer searching, such elegant strategies are easily applied, and these days taken for granted. As computers grow ever more powerful, their ability to handle full and free text searches renders any other option almost laughable.
When the Anglo-American Cataloging Rules (AACR) were revised in the late 1970s, computers were forcing serious changes in the librarian mindset, but they were not the ubiquitous force they are today. A 1970s VAX mainframe had less computing power than a modern smartphone. The public hearings about the proposed AACR2 at American Library Association meetings led to some odd moments as the card culture collided with the computer horizon. For example, for many, many years, the “Main Entry” card in the catalogue (the one card that combined ALL of the information known about the item) was the author card. Traditionally, that card was the author’s real name: Samuel Clemens, not Mark Twain; Mary Ann Evans, not George Eliot; Eric Blair, not George Orwell; Karen Blixen, not Isak Dinesen, et. al. AACR2 wanted to change that, and put the “known” name as main entry. There are stories of voices raised and tears shed; the amount of work required for that card catalogue revision would have been boggling, albeit a boon to the less experienced, researcher. But with modern online catalogues, it really doesn’t matter. ANY search will take you to the full record.
There are occasional news reports about card catalogues being rescued on the eve of their destruction. We are told that there is valuable information that will be lost if the cards are discarded. Perhaps that is true, although that speaks to the care with which the cards were “re-conned” (retrospectively converted) in the first place. Some of NLM’s last remaining cards contain shelving information in the “Old Red Brick” building that NLM left in 1962, and which has since been demolished to make space for the Hirschhorn Gallery. One can never be too careful; once they are gone, they are truly gone. And that is why every remaining NLM card is examined before its fate is decided.