The card catalogue
reigned in the Ansonia Public Library. The great old Gothic building
housed a large reading room, a small children's room in the fluorescent
basement, and an open balcony with rows and rows of bookshelves. Not
even the wrought iron balcony maze, perfect for hiding from a parent
or for a good game of hide-and-seek with a little brother-no, not even
the balcony could defeat the card catalogue. It was a mystery, too tall
for my short girl body, and irresistible. Today, they speak of anything
digital as "sexy modern technology."
I disagree: the
card catalogue was the sexiest part of any library. Fingers flew over
the cards at differing rates of speed, some flirting with unknown titles,
other caressing familiar friends. And always, the cross-referenced leaps
from drawer to drawer, mad bangs and soft sliding noises filling the
library hush. The clicks of keyboards cannot compete, nor the whir of
computer modules or the rush of online speed. (This celebration of the
card catalogue finds its germination in: "Discards," Nicholson
Baker, The New Yorker, 1994, pp. 64-86. This article was included
in the 2002 iSchool Optional Reading List.)
You may be wondering,
what does the card catalogue have to do with the major topics of knowledge
and information organization today? For my generation, the card catalogue,
along with the Dewey Decimal System, is the trademark of knowledge organization
in the library. Beginning in high school, and taking over in college,
online catalogues replaced real-object finding aids. We learned new
methods of searching and browsing, usually self-taught and tested. Independence
now rules in students' information-searching behavior; we have lost
trust in the librarian or information professional to help us find what
we want or need. The illusion of bibliographic control has deteriorated
with the advent of online cataloguing tools.
the information they contain have an aura of mystery just as the old
card catalogue did; yet there is a major exception. Card catalogues
are visibly finite. There are only so many drawers and so many cards
that one can search. In an Internet environment, users cannot see the
edge of their search field. The library has become larger than a wooden
box of paper, and that is good. (I am not guilty of reactionary beliefs;
nostalgic tendencies yes.) In this new world of limitless horizons,
with new generations of people forging ahead into the digital frontier
all on their own, major changes are in store.
of organizing information has already been proven. Rowley states, "the
organization of knowledge is an essential preliminary to the effective
exploitation of that information." How should we organize this
information? Panizzi "argued in favor of the need for a catalog
to bring together like items and differentiate among similar ones"
(Svenonius). Wilson wrote of two kinds of power, descriptive and exploitative,
both needed to gain true bibliographic control. I argue that the focus
of knowledge organization needs to expand its scope from the topics
historically discussed. New ways to utilize current technology are needed
to revolutionize current organizational strategies. Bibliographic control
in the 21st century can only be attained by greater collaboration between
the people trained in information retrieval and in information systems
design in the effort to tailor traditional cataloguing to this new world.
What are these
revolutionizing changes? Perhaps widespread online reference, supplemental
links to related authoritative websites, or graphics-only catalogues
for toddlers so they can gain valuable searching skills. The possibilities
will become more endless as we gain greater speed and storage space.
Wilson's "dimensions of power" may even become extinct! Maybe
there will be Web databases or catalogues that are entirely devoted
to one specific topic, and the extent and range will include everything
written or created about that topic. After we learn how to digitize
printed material at factory speed, supply of all material in digital
form will not be a problem.
The response time
will depend on the strength of your connection or computer; the effort
will be the click of a mouse. The major question will then be the cost
of this information. Will public libraries still have this material
on loan for free? (The file could be set to destruct in two weeks unless
renewed and have protective features that prevent copying, so that copyright
can still be protected.) Will there be public libraries on the Web?
Have I gone overboard
in my futuristic ramblings? I began with my childhood card catalogue
to express my indifference to the online catalogue. I do want the online
catalogue to be as sexy as the card catalogue of yore. Obviously, the
online catalogue cannot have the same tactile expressiveness, but it
has so much to offer. Its flexibility and expansiveness can allow for
great things, for worldwide organization of information. Yet another
question that arises: what kind of power do we want as cataloguers,
as organizers of knowledge? Is our goal Wilson's desire "to have
the power to procure the best textual means to one's ends" ? Or
shall we push it a little further to procure the best textual means
for everyone in the world at no charge, a socialist information revolution?
Please sign me up.
- Rowley, Jennifer.
Organizing Knowledge: An Introduction to Information Retrieval.
2nd ed. Hants, England: Ashgate, 1992.
Elaine. The Intellectual Foundation of Information Organization.
Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2001.
- Wilson, Patrick.
Two Kinds of Power: An Essay on Bibliographic Control. Berkeley:
Univ. of California Press, 1968.
This paper was
originally written for LIS 530.