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!

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