Innovation in the Card Catalog

by chromatic

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Computers had just started to reach schools as I was growing up. The first
time I ever used a computer was second or third grade; there was a new
Commodore 64 in the corner one day. From then, there was the usual assortment
of Apple IIs, Ataris, and, by high school, the venerable PS/2.

Since computers hadn't yet become pervasive, the libraries used the classic
card catalog: several rows of deep drawers, with thousands of cards apiece,
listing available books by subject, title, and author. This seems like an
obvious use of a computer now, but the expenses of hardware, software, and data
conversion were prohibitive until my undergraduate days.

The card catalog answered two most interesting questions:

  • Does this book exist?

  • Where can I find it?

Granted, several research projects in those days meant flipping through
subject cards, trying to find the right terms to describe books. Then, you'd
write down the appropriate Dewey Decimal System numbers (in most libraries
anyway) and track down the appropriate shelves. If you were lucky, the book
would be available. If you weren't lucky, you'd be in the right area for the
subject matter.

Of course, that all depended on being able to reach the card catalog.
Sometimes where were long lines. Other times, someone would have pulled out
the Ar - Az drawer to peruse on a table. I don't recall any instances of
vandalized or missing cards, but it must have happened.

While the old system had worked pretty well for decades, moving all of this
information to computers was very valuable. Since a computerized catalog is
just a client-server system, libraries could buy several dumb terminals and one
decent server. Not only could multiple people search in one "drawer"
simultaneously (as far as there were drawers in the new system), but searching
was much faster.

There was — and is — room for many other improvements. You
could tie in the catalog to the book registry and get real-time view of whether
a book had been checked out. (It's still a little difficult to know if
someone's waiting in line to check it out downstairs or if it's sitting in the
Reshelve cart waiting for a library assistant, but that's progress anyway.) If
your library is part of a group of libraries sharing catalog information, you
can see if a branch location or another library has the book. You can even
request it from another location. It's much easier to see related subjects and
works, as well.

With all of this innovation, the computer catalog never stopped answering
the fundamental questions:

  • Does this book exist?

  • Where can I find it?

Woe to any card catalog who answered a query for a non-existent book with a
Dewey Decimal Number of 1024, pointing to an empty shelf labelled "Your Book
Does Not Exist. And now for a word from our sponsor...."