Do Kids Use Still Use Library Cards & Card Catalogs?

December 12, 2009 | By | 2 Replies More


Mrs. Nerd and I were watching TV recently and both of noticed a card catalog on screen at the same time. We discussed school libraries briefly and moved on. A few days later, I was listening to Jimmy Buffett’s “Fruitcakes” album when I heard the song “Love in the Library.” These two separate events got me to thinking? Do kids these days go to libraries? And do they even know what a card catalog is?

For those of you that don’t know, card catalogs were how you found stuff in a library before computers. They were typically a series of index size cards neatly kept in numerous drawers near the checkout desk. Most of the cards that I remember appeared to be typed on a manual typewriter, as well.

I remember that if you were looking for something specific, knowing how to use a card catalog could speed along your research. I also recall having card catalog drills for an English class. They would mainly be exercises that would help you become more proficient at looking stuff up. Then you still had to go find it.

Our local city library and school libraries used the Dewey Decimal system. Yes, as an engineer, you would think I would appreciate how that works. I get the precision, just not always the logic.

The city library also issued library cards.  A little piece of paper with a piece of metal that would be used to emboss a number on their tracking card for the book. The thing I always used to love to look at in libraries was to see who had checked books out previously. If the book related to a particular school project, you could see the same book being checked out annually to somebody in a new class.

I also used to love to browse certain sections. Because of the orderliness of the aforementioned Dewey system, every book was with similar books. My favorite aisle was the Sci Fi section. I’d pick up a book from from the shelf, look at it, and if it looked interesting, I’d check it out. A number of my favorite sci fi authors were found this way. As a matter of fact, they probably are some of my favorite authors because the library had their books.

Those were the days. I use to go the library, just to go to the library. I’d look at mythology books and Agatha Christie thrillers. There was a bit of mystery to it all. Dusty books handled by a mysterious people. Tiny drawers filled with cards that could lead you to some tiny bit of information you were searching for. It was all kind of magical in my head.

All of my thoughts on libraries changed when I went to college.The library was a place for meeting study groups and a utilitarian information source. There were two experiences in college that really soured my taste for libraries. The first was my fault.

The college I attended used your student ID number in place of a library card. This meant, as a student, your library account was part of your general information. For the most part this was beniegn. Except at the end of the semester.

In order to have tight reign on their stacks, the college library had heavy fines for past due books. I seem to remember $2 for being past due plus $0.10 per day. I’m not sure, but as a college student it was significant. I tended to drop past due books in the drop box and forget about the fine. (Which is why I don’t rent from Blockbuster.) This went along fine until I got a notice in the mail saying my semseter grades would be held and I would not be able to start the next semster classes until I paid the $15 dollars I had in library fines. I paid it and moved on, but this started building a distrust of libraries in me.

The school did the same thing with parking tickets, and I had an end of semester / final exam issue there, but that’s another story.

The second thing about my college library I didn’t like? The Library of Congress system. After years of wrapping my head around Mr. Dewey’s catagorizing system, this library used something different.

It’s not a lot harder to understand, but it was different. The magic of the library was gone and replaced with cold utilitarian precision.  There were also a few computers to look for books and periodicals on. I was probably 50-50 on the card catalog and the computer, old habits die hard.

I would imagine most kids today would think of card catalog as something you would be more likely to find at Hogwarts than their local library. As technology has advanced, information has become easier to find and store. At the same time, it makes me sad to see the age of the wizened library sage disappear.

Sometimes the journey from card catalog, to the stacks, through the Dewey Decimal system, and to the librarian to check out your book with your library card was just more rewarding than the actual information. Which of these sounds like more fun to you, card catalog or computer?

For example, let’s say you were trying to find out would that hieroglyph of stork was appropriate to use in a piece of artwork.  Searching through tiny yellowed cards to find a dusty tome on shelf with a chart of ancient symbols or typing in “hieroglyph” on Google or Wikipedia?

I don’t think kids of the instant information age will ever appreciate the magic of the journey found by having to research information the way it was done before PC’s. But then again, while I could have found a book on Egyptology in my local library, I can spend hours looking at all the information on  a site like http://www.thebanmappingproject.com/. Maybe some progress isn’t so bad.

There were two experiences in college that really soured my taste for libraries. The first was my fault.
The college I attended used your student ID number in place of a library card. This meant, as a student, your library account was part of your general information. For the most part this was beniegn. Except at the end of the semester.
In order to have tight reign on their stacks, the college library had heavy fines for past due books. I seem to remember $2 for being past due plus $0.10 per day. I’m not sure, but as a college student it was significant. I tended to drop past due books in the drop box and forget about the fine. (Which is why I don’t rent from Blockbuster.) This went along fine until I got notice in the mail saying my semseter grades would be held and I would not be able to start the next semster classes until I paid the $15 dollars I had in library fines. I paid it and moved on, but this start building a distrust of libraries in me.
They did the same thing with parking tickets, and I had an end of semester / final exam issue there, but that’s another story.
The second thing about my college library I didn’t like? The Library of Congress system. After years of wrapping my head around Mr. Dewey’s catagorizing system, this library used something different.
It’s not a lot harder to understand, but it was different. The magic of the library was gone and replaced with cold utilitarian precision.
There were also a few computers to look for books and periodicals on. I was probably 50-50 on the card catalog and the computer, old habits die hard.
While most kids of today would probably regard card catalogs as
Be Sociable, Share!

Tags: ,

Category: Musings

About the Author ()

Comments (2)

Trackback URL | Comments RSS Feed

  1. dcr says:

    The local library here got rid of the card catalog before they had an acceptable computer system to replace them.

    It was nuts.

    Typically, the reason I went to the library was research. That is, I didn’t have the books I needed at home, so I needed to find them at the library.

    With the card catalog, you looked it up and went to where the book was. Easy enough. Pretty quick too.

    Then, they added the computers. Back in the mid-to-late eighties, I think. It was a novelty at first, but it was also a big waste of time. It was touch screen, no keyboard. And, you would have to wait for the whole screen to display before you could press anything. So, what you needed might be at the top of the screen, but you’d have to wait as the rest of the screen slowly appeared.

    It was not nearly as fast as going through the card catalog.

    Then, at last, you would finally find a book you needed, only to discover it wasn’t available at the branch you were in. They could order it in, and you could have it the next day, but the point of going to the library was to get the book then and there.

    At least with the card catalog, they only listed books that were actually available at the branch you were in. It could have been checked out, of course, but at least you could narrow things down and not include unavailable books in your search.

    The last time I went to the library–sometime in the mid-90s I think–they had gotten rid of the card catalog, but had not updated the computers. It was faster to go up and down the aisles to find the books you needed.

    And now they’ve closed that library and moved to a library that is more centrally located in town, which, for me, means that the library in the neighboring town is now actually closer to where I live.

    I would hope they’ve upgraded to a decent computer system by now. At any rate, the key is having an efficient means of accessing information. For years, that was a card catalog. Now, a computer can be a better means.

    Only, of course, if it’s a good system. If it’s faster to find the books by running up and down the aisles, it’s not a good system. 😉

  2. Engineernerd says:

    I know where my closest library is, but I’ve never been there. It’s sad really.

Leave a Reply