The Last of the Really Great Card Catalogs

Some of you may have seen the article floating around the web detailing OCLC’s last card catalog print run. The article is peppered with quotes about the ‘end of an era’ and comments on how the card catalog has been obsolete for at least 20 years. All of this is true for the wider world, but it struck me as poignant given that Saturday was the first skirmish in the battle for digitization in our library.

The cards in our catalog, like so many others out there, came from OCLC– the bottom right hand corner on each card proudly proclaims its origin. We have a primary catalog– author, title, and subject– as well as a supplementary catalog, which appears was added rather than integrating new records into the primary catalog. To be fair, our catalog has not had rigorous updating in close to a decade, and certainly nothing in the last 2-3 years (a project that yet awaits me, likely after this academic year). These cabinets stood watch as my assistant and I wrestled with the best way to manipulate an Excel spreadsheet which contained some of the same knowledge that lay tucked away neatly in each of the many drawers.

There is little that is elegant about the solution. I imagine this was true for those first movements from paper to digital as well. Currently, we’re creating new workbooks for each set of rooms in the library and manually moving each record to the new workbook once the status of the book in question has been verified. Tedious? Mildly. Efficient? Not terribly, but certainly more efficient than noting paper copies and then transcribing the information, which was the other option in our limited tech resource world.

Now, every Saturday (and odd weekdays), I sit in the foyer of the Library; my laptop perched on a book cart, I manually log the check ins and set them on the cart to shelve. I think if those cabinets could talk, they would laugh. So much effort to replace a system that, for all its manual intervention, would still work with a little TLC. The President of OCLC joked that they were going to have calligraphy done on the final card, ala an illuminated manuscript. While I likely won’t commission the art guild to lend an elegance to the decommissioned cards, it does make me wonder how we can repurpose the cards & cabinets to serve the library. After, we still enjoy illuminated manuscripts; surely we can find a new life for the catalog.


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