April 26, 2018

The Card Catalog Makes aGraceful Departure at the University of South Carolina

By Norman Oder

Contests, celebrations help commemorate the end of an era

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  • Card catalog boat race and new contest
  • Space will be used for students
  • Parts of catalog will be kept, distributed

For libraries challenged by space and budget issues, physical card catalogs are a liability, but they also presentUniversity of South Carolina It's All in the Cards rich possibilities for education and even entertainment.

So the University of South Carolina’s Thomas Cooper Library (TCL) has launched It’s All in the Cards: Celebrating and Commemorating the University Libraries Card Catalog, a “year-long series of events honoring the card catalog, its use in the transformation of knowledge, and the people who created and used it.”

Among the events so far: Game Night at TCL (above left) aUniversity of South Carolina It's All in the Cardsnd a Catalog Card Boat Race (right), in which entrants were judged on creativity and seaworthiness. Now the library’s sponsoring What Can You Make with Catalog Cards?, with four types of entries: Functional (serves a purpose), Foundational (building models), Fashionable (wearable), and Free Form.

(Photographs by Ashlie Conway, Music Librarian for Audio and Digital Services.)

As the Daily Gamecock noted, the catalog grew to nearly 4 million cards in 3168 drawers, but new cards haven’t been added since 1991.

The project web site highlights a different card each day (click below), some with contextual or clever commentary. For example, on a card for a 1970 publication titled Suggestions for Appalachian Trail Users, the advice is "Don’t forget your cell phone."

Genesis of the project
“We want to use the space for something else but didn’t feel right about quietly slipping the catalog out the back door and dumping all the cards,” Marilee Birchfield, reference librarian, told LJ. “The Dean of University Libraries, Tom McNally, asked me to think about some different uses for the cards and the catalog. There was an article in the staff newspaper in December of 2008—in part to see if we got any protests about retiring the card catalog.  We didn’t and in fact I got several requests for cards from that article.”

Several other libraries have had funerals or commemorations; Birchfield pointed to the University of Iowa Libraries’ inspired cARTalog project, which aimed to “find as many creative uses as possible for the salvaged card catalog cards and generate a sense of community among those who love the card catalog.”

At USC, the card catalog is located on TCL’s lowest floor, at the far end. While it “doesn’t take up an incredible amount of space,” already some tables have been placed in the area already cleared, she said. About half of the catalog remains.

One section of the card catalog will remain in TCL as an artifact. Birchfield noted that librarians who teach LIBR 100, a one-credit information literacy course, usually pull a card catalog drawer to show students some of the organizing principles.

Another section has been moved to the School of Library and Information Science, and another to a local technical college. While some individuals have requested a section, the rules governing state property don’t allow it, she noted. 

Many of the individual cards will be used in the year’s activities, she said, but the rest will eventually be recycled. Among other ideas: offering cards to K-12 teachers, holding an art competition; creating commemorative cards that can be used as bookmarks; and, not unlike the San Francisco Public Library’s use of cards as wallpaper, “mounting a display of cards with appropriate call numbers on each of our stack levels.”

(Here’s an interesting discussion by librarians who mostly disagreed with Nicholson Baker’s lament for the loss of card catalogs.)

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