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Cataloguing: Past Love Affair and Future Riot
By Noella Natalino
January 22, 2003

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.

Computers and 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.

The necessity 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.

Works Cited

  1. Rowley, Jennifer. Organizing Knowledge: An Introduction to Information Retrieval. 2nd ed. Hants, England: Ashgate, 1992.
  2. Svenonius, Elaine. The Intellectual Foundation of Information Organization. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2001.
  3. 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.

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