card catalogue drawers

Being a Cataloguer

Have you ever lost a book in your house? And, while looking for it, been surprised to find one you don’t remember buying (or borrowing)?

Imagine how hard it is to keep track of thousands of books distributed among multiple buildings and available to be borrowed by thousands of people. That’s the situation in libraries, especially large public libraries and those that are part of colleges and universities.

In past centuries, when books were owned by the privileged few, it was possible to keep track by means of handwritten lists and users’ knowledge of their collections. But with the proliferation of printed books, increased literacy, and the growth of universities, something flexible and expandable was needed.

Card-based book inventories emerged at the end of the 18th century. Rumour has it that in France, playing cards, whose backs were blank at the time, were pressed into service to keep track of book collections. A book’s particulars were written on the blank side of a card, and the cards filed in order. But the real development and standardization of the card catalogue happened in the United States. By the end of the 19th century, wooden cabinets with hundreds of cute little drawers full of 3 x 5-inch cards (familiar to most people of a certain age) were seen in just about all libraries, big and small.

Someone had to create, file, and organize those cards. Enter the cataloguer.

During the Golden Age of Cataloguing (defined by me to be more or less 1900 to 1980), just about all libraries of any size had cataloguing departments, employing anywhere from one person who did it all to dozens, working behind the scenes, largely unseen by and unknown to library users. Every book passed through that department, emerging with a spine label that was in effect its address in the library. And into those drawers went 3 x 5-inch cards bearing a distillation of each book’s essence: author, title, edition, publisher, place and date of publication. Number of pages and height. Series. Presence of bibliography and/or index. Subjects. Co-authors, editors, and illustrators. The ISBN and other identifying numbers.

Elaborate rules were devised for recording and presenting all this information in a systematic way. Devised, revised, and occasionally re-devised. In North America, half a dozen cataloguing codes were created during that century. I entered the profession when one of them, the Anglo-American Cataloguing Rules, second edition (AACR2) was adopted. Coincidentally, it was replaced by a new code not long before I retired.

In the 1960s, computers entered the picture and the whole thing was automated, by means of something called MAchine Readable Cataloging, aka “MARC Format.” Complex computer systems were created to use the data, first to print catalogue cards, and later for the online public catalogues still in use today. A whole new jargon and set of acronyms resulted. Real cataloguers “spoke MARC,” as in, “That goes in the 490, not the 245 p. The indicator is 1, so you need an 800, with the name from the 100 in ‘a’ and the title in ‘t.'” Translation: “That’s a series statement, not part of the title. It’s indexed, so add an author-title entry for it.” (Yeah, I know, that’s jargon too.) MARC Format was like a secret handshake among members of an occult society.

This was the milieu in which I spent my entire career as a librarian (1980 to 2016), at first in an environment cluttered with electric erasers, coding sheets, and coloured markers flagging new cards whose filing had to be checked. There was a never-seen-by-the-public master card catalogue called the “shelflist.” Books were adorned with an array of labels, stickers, coloured dots and spots. Passionate discussions, even arguments, occurred among cataloguers, about rule interpretations and minutiae of data. In the 1980s, the high discipline of Authority Control emerged–in effect, cataloguing the names of persons, things, and subjects, and creating a system of links among them.

Cataloguing was the perfect calling for a detail-oriented introvert with a fixation on order and organization.

Our mission was to apply and interpret the rules to create a map of our library’s collection, to help users find exactly what they needed, whether they were writing a thesis or looking for a good read. To create a catalogue record for a published work, the cataloguer must grasp the author’s intent, the information provided by the publisher, the needs of library users, and the rules and conventions of cataloguing. And sometimes the thing being catalogued is in a language of which the cataloguer has only the sketchiest knowledge.

Unfortunately, all this wasn’t always valued by managers and administrators. In fact, it often seemed they were our worst enemies, even our librarian colleagues. A whole department of behind-the-scenes specialists who spoke in arcane jargon and held books hostage until they had been subjected to obscure rituals? Bean-counting administrators focussed beady eyes on us as an unaffordable “cost centre.” We cataloguers became defensive, and resented having to justify our existence to people who refused to appreciate the value of our art. (And some of us secretly dreaded the prospect of being plucked from our cozy enclaves and thrust into contact with The Public.)

As the 20th century sputtered out, so did card catalogues. All those wooden cabinets were sold to people who thought they looked cool and retro, and were perfect for storing small collectibles. Library catalogues moved online, and there were calls for the death of the MARC Format, which was, after all, nearly 50 years old, like so many of the cataloguers who knew and loved it.

The Golden Age is over, but cataloguing hasn’t disappeared. Books and other intellectual creations still need to be organized, searched for, and cited. A giant entity called WorldCat has swallowed almost all the individual catalogues. Many libraries have disbanded their cataloguing departments and outsourced the work. Now we have something called “metadata,” a term familiar to self-published authors. Some (rather odd) people catalogue their personal book collections on Library Thing. As “search” enters a new era, many of those minutiae-worshipping, MARC-talking cataloguers have retired. Some of them are writing and publishing novels.

The narrator of my novel, The Friendship of Mortals, a guy named Charles Milburn, is a cataloguer at Miskatonic University in Arkham, at the beginning of the 20th century. The demands of the plot limit his opportunities to hold forth about his profession, but for those who are curious about it, there is a pretty good article in Wikipedia. Look under “Cataloging.” There’s also an interesting blog post about card catalogues from the US National Library of Medicine: Card Tricks: The Decline & Fall of a Bibliographic Tool.

It’s possible to catalogue anything. A former colleague told me he had catalogued a dustball, with smaller dustballs as supplements. When I retired, my staff made a spoof catalogue record for me. Here it is, in glorious MARC Format. That’s what all those numbers and lowercase letters are. Cataloguers know what they mean; others don’t need to. (Apologies for the reflections from the laminated paper.)

Fake catalogue record for Audrey Driscoll in MARC Format
Click on the image and zoom it up to read!

Featured image from Pexels

53 comments

    1. I can see that would be helpful, Sheree, and having read your posts, I imagine your collection is impressive. Interesting: the subject term that was assigned in the past was “Cookery,” as you’ve termed it. But in North America that word is considered old-fashioned, so a couple of decades ago, the official subject term was changed to “Cooking.” The variation in and evolution of language is an issue in the cataloguing world.

      Liked by 3 people

  1. I worked in libraries from elementary school through university, though not an actual librarian. I so miss those old wooden card catalogues at libraries! The internet era replacements just don’t come close to that experience. Fantastic post.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. When I started to read this Charles sprung to mind and then your experience in the oft forgotten unappreciated science and art of Cataloguing.
    In my brief time working in a Library I became familiar with the Dewey system and to appreciate its neatness of numbers which I still use when hunting out Non-fiction.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I worked with both the Dewey Decimal classification and the Library of Congress one. Dewey is most often used in public libraries, and LC in academic ones, at least in North America. Good to know you thought of Charles!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I do like the balance in the book between Herbert West and Charles, the narrative being as much about him as West.
        I broke off reading because of a sudden 100 Years War urge (Sheila got me a volume of Jonathan Sumpton’s classic series for Christmas), so will return shortly to complete the reading of The Friendship of Mortals.

        Liked by 1 person

          1. I like the feel of the various journeys through Life; Alma’s has been interesting, almost a parallel with West’s (Bringing back folk to Life, a woman being independent – in that era the latter would have still been equally outrageous to some)

            Liked by 1 person

              1. Oh definitely avoided Audrey .
                I know ‘preachy’….Authors ‘known and beloved’ by millions I could name, but usually get into trouble for Hersey / Blasphemy for doing so.
                No, I’m happily reading Characters’ observation, discourse, explanation, and interaction in ‘The Friendship of Mortals’

                Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Priscilla! TFofM was based on H.P. Lovecraft’s “Herbert West, Reanimator.” In that story, the unnamed narrator is also a physician. I knew I wasn’t prepared to do the research needed to make my narrator a believable medical “insider” (especially in the 1910s). That’s why Charles is a librarian, and since I was a cataloguer, I made him one of “us.”

      Liked by 3 people

  3. I wonder if it the age we live in, or it is the way it’s always been, but I can think of lots of things that have largely disappeared in my lifetime as well of card catalogs. I worked in the printing business for 13 years through the 90’s doing things like litho-stripping and “cutting color” by hand, I operated a room-sized process camera that took full sized pictures of things as large as newspaper pages, and with a filter, made half-tones out of photos, all of which were replaced by computers during my years there. I burned and processed printing plates that by the end of my days was also done directly from computer to a printing plate machine, without film being involved at all. And that’s not to mention that I now live among the ruins of all the small family dairy farms of 30-50 milking cows, like my grandparent’s farm, and the lifestyle that went with farming. All the fences between fields are gone as well. The house my father grew up in in Detroit, which used to stand shoulder to shoulder with all the other houses on the block still stands, though alone in a field of grass, no doubt just how ancient cities disappeared over time. Anyway, thanks for you ode to catalogers.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. That’s the thing about technologies and processes that have been replaced by ones that are faster and possibly better: the superseded ones required an array of skills and had their own cultures. That’s what we miss, even while acknowledging the logic of moving forward.
      I have to admit, though, I would prefer to live in a world where things evolve slowly, rather than the frequent tech-based disruptions we experience in our reality. At least we writers can create those other worlds!

      Liked by 1 person

    1. You’re right, Neil. There’s a practice called “shelf-reading,” where library staff check the books on the shelves to find ones that are out of place or out of order. But I suspect it’s not done as often as needed.

      Liked by 2 people

  4. What a great article – it makes me so nostalgic! You knew I was a catalog librarian – the old fashioned kind. Your line “the perfect calling for a detail-oriented introvert with a fixation on order and organization” describes me perfectly! My library degree is from UCLA (1963) and their library school was quite new. Seymour Lubetzky, who was one of the authors of the Anglo-American Cataloguing Rules, was teaching cataloging there, so I learned the “right way” to do it from the horse’s mouth! I cataloged from 1963 through 1978 and just missed the computerization process. The small state university where I was head cataloger from 1973-1978 had a stodgy old Head Librarian who was near retirement and he refused to institute any computerization, so I never learned anything about MARC. In 1978 we moved back to Colorado Springs and I couldn’t find a library job. I applied at the public library, but they wanted somebody who could computerize the system and I didn’t have the background, or the interest, for that matter. I ended up getting into another line of work.
    I’m also one of those catalogers who hates reference work. In my first job the catalogers had to work one evening a week in Reference, I’m not one who thinks quickly off the top of my head and people come in asking all these goofy questions about things you never heard of. Nowadays, all you need to do is Google the topic. Everybody can be their own reference librarian. I like that aspect of the computer age.
    Btw, in my day we were taught to honor Dewey by spelling “catalogue” as “catalog.” (As you know, Dewey was a spelling reformer.) The old habit dies hard!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m impressed that you learned cataloguing from Lubetzky! His books were required reading for me. I went to the University of British Columbia Library School (1979-80), where Ronald Hagler taught cataloguing. I did learn MARC in library school, and AACR2 was the new, hot thing in rules.
      I worked in a university library for 12 years, and then moved to a large public library as Head Cataloguer (a nice, old-fashioned title that was modernized to something I can no longer remember). I had to do a weekly session on the reference desk. My experience there was similar to yours; I’m not a “people person.”
      The worst thing about my cataloguing career was the constant questioning of the validity of what I was doing and the need to justify it, as well as actually do the work.
      Ah yes, I remember Melvil Dewey’s spelling reform efforts. I believe the early editions of his classification used his spellings. “Cataloguing” is also the Canadian spelling of the word, so I use that.
      Thanks for the opportunity to slip back to my cataloguing past, Lorinda!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. So just as I was leaving cataloging, you were getting into it! I was going to mention how Dewey’s early editions used his spelling system, but I thought my post was getting too long. I remember talking about what a hard time he had phoneticizing the word “mayonnaise.” I worked in a couple of libraries that were converting from Dewey to LC classification – what a hassle, relabeling every book. And keeping subject headings current … lots of electric eraser use, as you mentioned! I never thought what I was doing was not valid – organizing knowledge so people could find information easily is important – although I question the hours I spent checking the card filing of new clerks!

        Liked by 1 person

        1. There was an copy of an early edition of Dewey in our department. I made sure it wasn’t disposed of, as a historical artifact. Ha, that’s funny about “mayonnaise.”
          I think the cost-effectiveness of cataloguing departments came into question when automation became the norm and libraries were able to tap into big databases. Electric erasers were retired when cards were no longer in use, but I did spend a lot of time doing global updates on changed name and subject headings. At that time the computer system I worked with was really good.
          I do remember checking card filing back in the 1980s!

          Liked by 1 person

    1. What an interesting post about your grandmother’s experiences with library training! Many things have changed, but some remain to the present day. I’m impressed that you followed up with research into some of the people that presented at those courses. I remember one of the reading rooms at the University of British Columbia’s Main Library was called the Ridington Room. And looking at the list of names of the trainees is a small slice of the times–almost everyone is a “Miss.”
      Thanks for the link, Liz, and for reading my post!

      Liked by 3 people

      1. You’re welcome, Audrey! I’m so glad you enjoyed the account of my grandmother’s library training. I found it fascinating. Speaking of the times, once my grandmother got married, she never worked again.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. Thank you for this post, Audrey.
    In a way, we are guardians of books. Our job is invisible until something is wrong and no one can fix it but us. Since we’re responsible for the entire collection, however, our colleagues and the Calgary Public Library administration appreciate and respect our work.
    We still use Marc records, although our vendors do most of the cataloguing for us. We’re more metadata specialists these days than cataloguers, yet all of us (there are six cataloguers at CPL) enjoy occasional in-house cataloguing. Thankfully, quite a few books from smaller vendors still arrive without bib records.
    Resource Description and Access (RDA) is the dominant cataloguing rule, supposedly more flexible than its predecessor, the AACR2. Designed to cover constantly emerging new formats, it is centered around three new fields, 336, 337, 338 (content, media and carrier type), which eliminates the need for |h subfield (the general material designation) in 245 field, as well as the absence of the “rule of three”. It insists on full spelling, not abbreviations, doesn’t use Latin words, etc.
    I agree that cataloguing is a dream job for detail-oriented introverts who like to create order out of chaos; I would just add that it also requires significant mental flexibility. The worst possible people for this highly structured and organized job are those who tend to blindly follow the rules.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. It’s good to hear there are still cataloguers at CPL; I dimly recall some rumours years ago that it was going for total outsourcing. Even with vendor-supplied records, someone has to be there to solve problems. And yes, there are still materials that must be catalogued locally–often locally produced works.
      I worked with RDA for my last two or three years. Like AACR2 in the late ’70s, it was less daunting in practice than when it was the next thing on the horizon.
      And yes–the paradox of rules! As you say, those who follow them blindly are not the best people for the job. That can be said of both writing and cataloguing.
      Thanks for contributing your thoughts on this, Jasna!

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, Charles would have done a lot of what we called “original cataloguing.” The Library of Congress was still in the early days of producing cards for other libraries in the 1910s.
      Automating the cataloguing process was an early target of AI, but it hasn’t as yet been achieved. You would think that being rules-based it would be easy, but rules written for humans don’t always translate well for machines. Also, the things being catalogued are products of human brains. Maybe when books are written by AIs, the cataloguing will be baked in at the time of creation.

      Liked by 1 person

        1. I took a look at the Wikipedia entry. I suppose its usefulness depends on what it’s used for. I can’t see that writing fiction would be a priority. We’re already drowning in the stuff. Human writers would keep writing, even if hardly anyone reads our creations (as many of us already do). And I suppose the Big Publisher (I’m guessing eventually there will be only one) could crank out AI-produced books without having to deal with those pesky writers.

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  6. I think about the old skills I used to teach my students that are now outdated. I used to teach weeks about maps when a phone can do the same thing with the push of a button. I also remember making up treasure hunts in the library, where kids utilized the card catalog to solve the mysteries. I enjoyed making up the treasure hunts as much as the kids enjoyed solving them.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. As a bean-counting library administrator, I have nothing but respect for all the librarians who purchase and catalogue our collection and develop ingenious programs for our patrons to enjoy. At the three year mark in my employment with the library system, I still consider myself a newbie, and the services we are able to deliver still astound me. The ability to track and rotate our collection around six branches seems more magical than technical, although I’m assured it’s performed simply by having good processes.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s great to hear that technical services staff are appreciated in your library, Jeff, even by bean-counters. 🙂
      Improved circulation processes and good library computer systems have made it possible for people to pick up and return materials at any branch. As a library user, I’m grateful for that.
      Thanks for contributing your comments!

      Liked by 1 person

  8. I am always losing books – especially the ones i need as a source material (I have a working library to support my writing). I really must get around to cataloguing them, or at least putting them in proper order. My aunt, who was a librarian, organised her personal book collection in Dewey order. A good thing to do.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I have to admit, I’ve not catalogued my personal books. They’re organized rather roughly by subject, and the fiction by author. I tend to think in terms of where they sit on the various shelves around the house. It’s sort of funny, but a couple of years ago we moved the shelves, but when I think of a specific book, I still visualize it in its old spot and have to remember that it has moved.

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  9. Every now and then our library has a sale of old books, and they’ll still have those coloured dots and arcane alpha/numeric codes on the spines.
    I came across one, a few years ago now, that still had the library card in it’s little folder/envelope-y thing glued to the back cover, half-full of date stamps going back to sometime in the 60’s, I think. 😀

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Public libraries still use dots and spots to designate books as belonging to a particular category, such as age level for children, or that the book is part of the reference collection so can’t be borrowed. The alpha-numerics show the book’s place on the shelf and indicate its subject. Those are still in use too, in most libraries.
      The cards in the envelopes (book pockets), though–those are relics of past times. I hope you preserve them!

      Liked by 1 person

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