Wednesday, April 20, 2016

The Catalog held but just Ourselves / And Immortality

Here's a bit of news from last fall that I'm only now getting around to processing:

It’s been a long time since most libraries were filled with card catalogs — drawers upon drawers of paper cards with information about books. But now, the final toll of the old-fashioned reference system’s death knell has rung for good: The library cooperative that printed and provided catalog cards has officially called it quits on the old-fashioned technology.

The news comes via the The Online Computer Library Center (OCLC). The cooperative, which created the world’s first shared, online catalog system back in 1971, allowed libraries to order custom-printed cards that could then be put in their own analog cataloging systems. Now, says OCLC, it’s time to lay a “largely symbolic” system that’s well past its prime to rest.

When I was in graduate school at Penn State, there was a professor in our department who, so I was told, would sometimes lead his advisees over to Pattee Library and pull out the appropriate catalog drawer,  pointing to all the cards with his name on it (and the number was, indeed, nothing to sneeze at). That, he told his students, was immortality.

He was also fond of reminding his students of the academic injunction "publish or perish," although he took perverse pleasure in pointing out to them it was possible to do both. Perhaps he was right; the professor himself died over ten years ago but the list of his books on Amazon runs to a couple of pages, although most appear to out of print now.

I remember the pleasant shock I found when I discovered my own doctoral dissertation in the card catalog at my undergraduate alma mater.

I also remember the guilty pleasure of searching online catalogs from universities and the Library of Congress in the pre-Web days, seeking that buzz you got when you saw your name on the screen – even if it was only a CRT monitor (which could in part explain the buzz).  "Ego-surfing," it was called, and perhaps it still is. The practice has moved on beyond the simple digital equivalent of looking for one's picture on the cover of the Rolling Stone to more sophisticated questions of online image and reputation management, and even – oddly enough – privacy. I remember finding out about that one the hard way, when a colleague pointed out to me that one of my publishers, linked to on my first-ever web site, had changed its online address and the old address now redirected to a porn site. Of course, social media has made most users' names so omnipresent in their own online sensorium there's less shock in seeing one's name than in not seeing it.

Didn't Oscar Wilde say something along those lines once?

Speaking of slightly less-guilty pleasures, when I go to university libraries or large book stores like Powell's, I often enter my name into a few of the workstations for their book catalog system -- and just walk away, leaving it there on the screen. I enjoy imagining the moment at the regular meeting where they make decisions about acquisitions when someone will look around the table with a puzzled expression and say, "I can't really put my finger on why, but does anyone else think that we should be stocking more books from someone named Nothstine?"  I like to think of it as subliminal marketing, but much more direct than airbrushed nudes in pictures of ice cubes.

One interesting sidelight of the Smithsonian article is the importance that the traditional – I suppose we'd call it "analog?" – card catalog system placed upon clear penmanship, such that it was for a long time one of the major skills sought when hiring librarians. Now both clear handwriting (even block lettering, to say nothing of cursive) are going the way of the dodo. Out-evolved by a doodad you can also use to play Angry Birds and share photographs of your lunch. Same with alphabetizing, a skill that was drummed into me in grade school and which – I discovered to my surprise when I took an exam to be a census-taker in 2010 – either most people had forgotten or were never taught.

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