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WHAT LIBRARIES LOST WHEN THEY THREW OUT THE CARD CATALOGUE

Updated August 06, 2017

This book about card catalogues — The Card Catalogue: Books, Cards and Literary Treasures — written and published in cooperation with the United States’s Library of Congress, is beautifully produced, intelligently written and lavishly illustrated. It also sent me into a week-long depression. If you are a book lover of a certain age, it might do the same to you.

The Card Catalogue is many things: a lucid overview of the history of bibliographic practices, a paean to the Library of Congress, a memento of the cherished card catalogues of yore and an illustrated collection of bookish trivia.

The text provides a concise history of literary compendia from the Pinakes of the fabled Library of Alexandria to the advent of computerised book inventory databases, which began to appear as early as 1976. The illustrations are amazing: luscious reproductions of dozens of cards, lists, covers, title pages and other images guaranteed to bring a wistful gleam to the book nerd’s eye.

For someone who grew up in and around libraries, it is also a poignant reminder of a vanished world.

Now, waxing nostalgic about card catalogues or being an advocate for the importance of libraries is a mug’s game. You can practically feel people glancing up from their iPhones to smile tolerantly at your eccentricity. My response to this, after an initial burst of profanity, is to explain (again) why libraries are essential to narrowing the inequality gap and why the internet is not an adequate substitute for books or libraries.

The Card Catalogue is a heady antidote to the technophilia threatening our culture. The book is especially illuminating on the powerful, if overlooked, properties of the humble catalogue card, some 79 million of which were printed annually at the system’s peak in 1969. Each one is a perfect melding of design and utility, a marvel of informational compression and precision. In his introduction, Peter Devereaux rightly calls the catalogue “one of the most versatile and durable technologies in history,” one that lasted almost a century, until 1980, when the Library switched completely to a computerised system.

Although some contemporary readers might consider this book outrageously quaint, the card catalogue’s conceptual structure was the underpinning of the internet; the idea of something being ‘tagged’ by category owes its existence as an organising principle to the subject headings delineated by the Library of Congress. A national card catalogue system was the original search engine — one that needed no electricity, no service providers or broadband or smartphones, and that was truly democratic.

The slow obsolescence of this marvellous informational structure lends a palpable sense of loss to the book’s narrative. Devereaux quotes historian Barbara Tuchman as referring to the card catalogue as “a companion all my working life.”

Although some contemporary readers might consider this book outrageously quaint, the card catalogue’s conceptual structure was the underpinning of the internet; the idea of something being ‘tagged’ by category owes its existence as an organising principle to the subject headings delineated by the Library of Congress. A national card catalogue system was the original search engine — one that needed no electricity, no service providers or broadband or smartphones, and that was truly democratic.

As it happens, Tuchman voiced this soulful plaint in a 1985 talk at the New York Public Library, in which she went on to express considerable scepticism about the vaunted capabilities of digital search. “The easier the process is made,” Tuchman warned, “and the less active individual thought is employed by the researcher, the less his brain will be exercised. My hunch,” she continued, “is that the searcher ... will get more than he wants to know and much that he cannot use.”

Technology aside, the book also summons the spectre of a bygone American faith in the ability of institutions of government to work for a common good. The idea of the Library of Congress implementing a nationally standardised system to classify and track the nation’s collective publication history is now as surely a part of the past as steam engines or top hats. Looked at this way, the card catalogue stands with other great 20th century works of civic architecture as testament to the potential of what a society — and a government — can achieve, an especially discouraging reminder in our current era of reduced expectations.

For some readers, the sense of personal nostalgia engendered by this book is piercing. When I think of the books that shaped me — the haphazardly chosen volumes that formed the bedrock of my post-collegiate education — I think of the works of Pauline Kael and Roger Angell, of Henry James and Joan Didion and John Updike and Philip Roth and Frederick Exley, in their Boston Public Library plastic casings, piled high on a rickety desk in some shabby hovel of my young adulthood. I owe my existence as a reader, as a thinker, as a writer, as a person to libraries.This book reminds me of that, even as it reminds me of how much has been lost.

*By arrangement with the Washington Post

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, August 6th, 2017