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April 13, 2012

The pattern of sunlight on oak
Posted by Abi Sutherland at 06:37 AM * 96 comments

As a sophomore in college, I took a 2-credit Library & Information Sciences course, mostly because it led to a stack pass. (I don’t need to explain to this community why a person would want a stack pass at the University of California at Berkeley. To other people, I tended to link it to my habit of exploring the stream tunnels off of Strawberry Creek and wandering through buildings whose subjects I did not study.)

One lecture covered the card catalog—a glorious thing in oaken cases, filling a whole room on its own. The instructor mentioned that the drawers still contained a number of handwritten cards. That afternoon, after class, I decided to search for one. I still retain a strong visual memory of the moment I succeeded, twenty-three years ago: the color of the sleeve of my T-shirt, pushed halfway up my forearm; the pattern of golden woodgrain in the sunbeam; the precise shade of the ink of the copperplate entry describing an 1872† edition of Apollonius Rhodius’ Argonautica.

I was thinking of that moment as I read this article*, by Professor Greg Downey. He teaches a freshman class on Media Fluency for the Digital Age at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. (He also runs a really good blog on the subject, unsurprisingly). One of the class assignments was:

Finding information that’s not online. Find an article (research journal article, analytic newspaper article, serious magazine article, or scholarly book chapter) that is on the topic of the Internet or new media, but not available (at least, not to you) on the Internet, and acquire a digital copy of that article. In a one-page, single-spaced write-up, document the steps you took to (a) find the article, (b) ensure that it was not available to you online, and (c) find out how to get it offline, (d) digitize it, (e) use optical character recognition software to make your text searchable, and (f) save the file to MyWebSpace and give your TA permission to view it. Paste the full URL of your file at the end of your write-up.

The assignment forced students to move out of their usual research modes. Some of the things they did were traditional: go to the library, ask a librarian, read a book. Others were interestingly modern, such as finding items on eBay. It’s worth reading the whole article to get a shape of the work they did.

It’s tempting to harrumph and grumble about how the Young ‘Uns are missing out on a wealth of information sources because they’re not digitized, and to be pleased that they’ve finally got access to the Good Stuff (like wot we had). It’s easy to turn the story into a New Media versus Old Media turf war, yet again, as always. But the real reason I bring the article to your attention is how well Downey conveys the pleasure of seeing students find the deep roots of their knowledge, and how he, from their reaction, gives us a glimpse of the world that they inhabit.

And that, more than anything else, is the heart of the academy.

† Date corrected after reference to the record in the online catalog.
* link via @jkaizer on Twitter

Comments on The pattern of sunlight on oak:
#1 ::: Pendrift ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2012, 07:55 AM:

One of the best courses I had to take in the early noughties, at around the time googling was becoming the dominant research method for university students, was called M├ęthodologie de la recherche documentaire. Every fortnight, our professor would give us a text on an obscure (to most of us) subject. We were to identify the specialized terms in the text and find twenty reliable references for the topic.

Of the twenty references, only four could be online sources. The other sixteen had to come from meatspace. The ones I can remember: specialist library; specialist bookstore; government agency; non-government agency; private business entity; museum; Minitel (yes, Minitel); an expert in the field; a professional association or federation; a trade show or professional event; a school or training center; a documentary film.

If it hadn't been for that class I would never have visited the tea museum, or one of the sewage treatment centers outside Paris, or discovered the dairy industry documentation center that was just 3 blocks from my studio (with lots of free recipes!), or the bookstore specializing in all things nautical. And my mind would not have been made as aware of just how much knowledge was actually within my reach if I just knew where to look.

#2 ::: Adrienne ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2012, 08:21 AM:

I have nothing of great substance to add but want to say to Abi, yes, this.

#3 ::: SamChevre ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2012, 09:09 AM:

This is great.

I remember the first time I used a card catalog; I was probably 10 or so. I remember being amazed that I could actually find something specific without a librarian's help.

It also made me think of this Timothy Burke post on finding information online.

[Gnomed because of the URL format in your link -- AS]

#4 ::: Terry Karney ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2012, 09:25 AM:

[curmudgeon hat]

I miss card catalogs. I used to spend large chunks of time perusing them, because they made associational research easy. Hit the subject cards, and then flip for interesting titles.

Note the numbers, and authors, and head to the author catalog, and see if there was anything else interesting by them.

I've not figured out how to do that in the various online/searchable databases.

With the way google seems to be "tailoring" people's searches, I am not sure I'll ever be able to do it online. I wonder what resources I'm having a harder time finding.


#5 ::: Pendrift ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2012, 09:39 AM:

Terry Karney @4,

The Mundaneum was a 19th-century version of Google, a gigantic card catalog with 16 million entries. Up to now visitors can still go in and riffle through the cards. It's one of my favorite museums in Belgium for what it represents.

#6 ::: paul ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2012, 10:16 AM:

Oh, you whippersnappers. I think that those of us who grew up before the intertubes had an easier time of this appreciation. The card catalogs row upon row flanked the nave of our university library as you approached Our Lady of the Circulation Desk, and the stacks... (When I was a kid writing a term paper, my mother used her access to bring my a bunch of original pamphlets inveighing on Worcester v. Georgia -- which I am betting have yet to be digitized)

Even then, though, card catalogs were too big and unwieldy for many searches, and it was better to become familiar with a region of the stacks once a good reference had directed you to a decent lode.

(Meanwhile, I'm pleased to see that essentially my entire career is still offline -- the bibliographical references are there, but the publications in question haven't made online copies accessible, if indeed they have them.)

#7 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2012, 10:21 AM:

Terry @4:

You can do that with a faceted library search system. Take Harvard University's, for example. (I happen to know about it because I helped set it up).

If you type a search term in, the system will do a general search on the that word or words. To pursue a given subject, look at the entry for a given title, and then click on one of the subject terms. You'll be given a subject search on that term. Click on an author, get an author search. Look at the search terms, learn the syntax, and start building your own.

Google doesn't do much of that, because it's not faceted to do library-style searches. But libraries have specialist search engines, and this kind of searching is genuinely easier online, once you master them. (Just as you had to master card catalogs, once.)

Also, since when can you do a paper card catalog search of so many libraries throughout the world? Oxford, Cambridge, Yale, UC Berkeley, and on, and on...all at your fingertips. Just Google "[Name of university] library catalog" and you can browse thousands of academic collections.

#8 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2012, 10:33 AM:

So I just went looking in the UC Berkeley online catalog. I think this is the digital version of the card I found that day, which means I was a couple of years off on the publication date. I've updated the post.

#9 ::: Tracey C. ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2012, 10:37 AM:

abi @7: Thank you! As someone who worked in libraries back in the pre-tech days, I have eagerly embraced the additional power and resources available via computerization and globalization. I was just talking to someone the other day about how my (very small, very specialized) library would have been completely inadequate to answer their question if we hadn't access to the internet.

Plus, if the database crashes, you just restore from backup. When someone drops a drawer from the catalog and the cards all fall out (which, believe me, happened more frequently than I like to remember), you have to sort them all by hand to put them back in. Huge PITA. Not to mention the users who would rip cards out rather than go to the bother of writing down the information they needed.

So no, no nostalgia for the things here, even though I have a chunk of the former shelflist catalog for the last library I automated sitting in my bedroom as a lovely piece of furniture. The cats love sitting on it.

#10 ::: Terry Karney ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2012, 11:27 AM:

abi: I'm glad there are systems that are similar, but part of my frustration is parallel to my annoyance with the vernacular mass.

I can, probably, manage to enjoy a service in France. In Korea, and Germany and even Ukraine, it's impossible.

One of the things I liked about the card catalog (and having spent time as a Library Science student I know all the horrors of keeping one up to date, right down to the head librarian getting someone to double check his arrangements before inserting new cards) was that I could go to any library and have the same search tools.

I didn't need to learn a new one everytime I got to a different library.

As I said, I'm being curmudgeonly.

#11 ::: Persephone ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2012, 11:35 AM:

Card catalogs were a standard feature of my book-loving childhood, but I'm of the age to straddle that divide, and by the time I graduated from college, almost everything was digital. I'm nostalgic about walking out of the library with big stacks of books*, but not so much for the card catalog itself.

In our rural area, libraries tended to be small, limited and far away, and asking to be driven to a university library would have been Putting Myself Forward and Making Special Requests, which for DFD-related reasons were Discouraged. It never even occurred to me to use interlibrary loans for the same reason. When I was old enough to drive, I'd learned those lessons well enough that it still didn't occur to me I might deserve information access.

For me, the digital age meant freedom to access other ideas than the ones I'd grown up with, other information, other people. It was even better than having a car. And I didn't feel like I was "bothering" anyone by accessing it.

Hm. Maybe this should have gone in the DFD thread. At any rate, I think there's a lot of value in both. I do miss browsing physical shelves for related books in a given topic.

*Our family rule was that I could only take as many children's books as I could physically carry on our weekly trips to the library; otherwise the only solution would have been shopping bags.

#12 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2012, 11:37 AM:

Terry, you are, and I did kind of ask that this not turn into just that sort of harrumphing. It's unproductive and depressing.

As it happens, having worked in library search software, I can tell you that systems are converging rapidly. They all have similar interfaces, and are designed, tested, bought and sold by people who are even fonder of card catalogs than you are. They are, for a wide variety of people (particularly people with library science training), highly intuitive to use.

I'd suggest you do some investigation rather than relaxing into knee-jerk contrarianism. It's neither warranted by the situation, nor productive of good conversation.

#13 ::: Terry Karney ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2012, 11:53 AM:

I'm sorry. I wasn't trying to be knee-jerk about it. I hope they do more converging, because I like poking about the nooks and crannies, and it's been one of my frustrations that it doesn't feel (to me) that I can still do that (and I suspect that's one of the reasons I've spent less time in libraries of late).

So it's probably a mostly personal problem; in that I am either too peripatetic to get good with a given system's nuances, or just too cranky about how it's, "not the same"; which isn't really fair, for all that it's a nuisance to me.

I know that, to those who don't have my prejudices this isn't such a problem.

It's interesting, that I didn't have the same sort of visceral annoyance when I first encountered a Library of Congress sorted collection, even though I have a harder time doing random stack searching when I'm in such a library.

I wonder what the difference is.

#14 ::: Bruce Cohen (Speaker to Managers) ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2012, 11:56 AM:

I first discovered the real power of libraries at the age of 11, when I found that the Philadelphia Central Library was a block away from the classes I was taking on Saturday mornings. So every Saturday I spent several hours browsing in the library. I might look for something specific in the card catalog and then cruise the shelves in the immediate area of that book, or I might just pick a section of shelf and find out what was there.

Later in life I spent many a pleasant hour in university libraries (the UC Davis Physical Sciences Library was special fun: 6 floors of books and periodicals to poke around in. That building gave me a large part of the EE education that I never formally got).

Only two of the companies I worked for over the years had technical libraries, but I made full use of those, including finding out how useful a librarian can be in searching for just the right paper.

Now I've got access to far more material from right here at my keyboard, including access to library databases through my local library's computer system. What I have now is far more comprehensive and far quicker to access than the physical resources I had years ago, even though I have to pay for copies of papers from many of the periodicals (but thank Pallas Athena for So I'm not often nostalgic about the old ways, except for sometimes remembering the joy of first discovery of using a library. But I don't think of this as a sudden or large change in the way I look for information, because it's been changing all along, from physical access with a card catalog to searches with a librarian's assistance to online searches and access.

#15 ::: Terry Karney ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2012, 12:01 PM:

Somewhere in the 3rd grade I found the library at my school. It wasn't a great part of town, but the library was. I spent I don't know how long in the stacks, taking out books on various culture's myths.

When I went to Catholic school the city library was across the street. It wasn't the AC I went in to enjoy. I don't know how many books I read that I never checked out. Just came back to every day for an hour or so.

When I was told I couldn't order a book from Scholastic, I went across the street, and checked it out.

So I read it sooner, and with more attention, than if I'd been allowed to buy it.

And now I have an iPad, which makes it a lot easier to read Dumas.

#16 ::: guthrie ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2012, 12:13 PM:

Firstly, I like the "students find the deep roots of their knowledge" comment. All knowledge, even the dead ends, share long roots back into the past and the investigations, thoughts and struggles of other people, often on topics surprsingly familiar to us.

Then comment 1 by Pendrift, I wonder if I can adapt that method in a few years time for my niece and nephew. I imagine that part of being a good uncle is to introduce them to other things that they haven't met before.

#17 ::: Doug K ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2012, 12:42 PM:

in another country, long ago and far away, I did the system analysis and much of the coding to move the University library from card catalogs and card-based circulation, to computerized systems. Months of fun, handcrafting MARC record structures to wedge them into a relational database; more months building a primitive search engine for the author/title/subject searches. Oddly the most contentious part of the system was fines, I learned a lot very quickly about audit records and systems ;-)

The old oak catalog cases were things of beauty. The librarians saved a couple for display, I don't know what became of the rest: firewood quite possibly, given the country and the times.
I missed the circulation cards with handwritten names of those who had taken out the book - looking the records up in the database just did not afford the same frisson, the shock of the old.

#18 ::: Carol Kimball ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2012, 12:49 PM:

When the Denver Public Library began to go digital, I was among those lamenting the loss of being able to browse the card catalog. As I live a short walk from the central branch, strolling along the stacks is an option when they're open.

Eventually, going to a service desk meant that a librarian could use their Sekrit Access for me, but we had to be shoulder to shoulder and I was chary of hogging too much time.

Now I CAN browse through related numbers from my desktop, and I can do it in the middle of the night. I can also confirm that the DPL system doesn't have something and apply for an inter-library loan.

If you tried something along these lines and got nada, it's worth checking back. Despite huge budget cuts, the people who work in the system are setting these things up for us as they can.

#19 ::: Clarentine ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2012, 12:52 PM:

Abi @7 -

Holy crap! You just solved the biggest conundrum in my digital research experience - how to do the digital equivalent of browsing the stacks near something I knew to exist. Now I don't have to have a physical book in hand to track down similar material. Hot damn!

#20 ::: Janet Brennan Croft ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2012, 01:00 PM:

Terry Karney #4: You don't even need a fancy faceted search system like abi suggests to replicate that kind of search! When you find something you like in the catalog, you'll find that many of the fields in the record are clickable -- so you can click the author to find more by that author, or click one of the subjects to find everything else with that subject heading.

I've been in the library field long enough that some of my first jobs were hand-correcting catalog cards and scratching out discarded ones to use as scrap paper. As card catalogs were just about to disappear for good, I devised a hyper-efficient method for accurately pulling large numbers of cards at once. Hah.

Here at my library, there is one special collection that still uses a card catalog. And we still have a shelf-list in the basement for older items that didn't get their entire record transferred to MARC.

I own three card catalog units -- two low ones in my studio as a work surface, full of thread and buttons and beads and yarn, and one tall one in the dining area, filled with napkins and silverware and kitchen gadgets and spice bottles.

#21 ::: Lizzy L ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2012, 01:05 PM:

Oh, God, I love libraries. I loved the public libraries of my childhood. (New York, 42nd St. Patience and Fortitude.) I remember with delight the pleasure of time spent in the immense stacks of the library at the University of Chicago. I now use the find and hold features of my local library online: it's wonderful. I can search the online catalog, find books, ask that they be sent to my local branch, and voila! it happens. The clerks at my local library don't even ask for my library card any more: they all know my name, and they check the hold shelf when I walk in. I have never in my life voted against funding a library. I am a member of the local Friends of the Library.

Love libraries. Love them.

#22 ::: Serge Broom ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2012, 01:27 PM:

"What makes you think you could be the Librarian?"
"I know the Dewey Decimal System, Library of Congress, research paper orthodoxy, web searching. I can set up an RSS feed..."
"Everybody knows that. They're librarians. What makes you think you are *the* Librarian?"
- Jane Curtin as a Librarian

#23 ::: OtterB ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2012, 01:40 PM:

What makes you think you are *the* Librarian?"


#24 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2012, 01:43 PM:

My undergraduate institution did not have handwritten catalogue cards (it having come into existence quite some time after the invention of the typewriter). It did have an extensive card catalogue. That catalogue had some intriguing typographical errors.

One that will forever stick in my memory resulted from my passion, 35 years ago, for the poetry and prose of Robert Graves. I found in the catalogue the collection of essays made up of his lectures as Professor of Poetry at Oxford, published under the title The Crowning Privilege. The person who had typed up the card left out the first en. As my mentor, Mervyn Morris, said when I reported this to him, after having checked the book in question out of the library, Graves had indeed availed himself of that particular privilege in his lectures.

#25 ::: Tracie ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2012, 01:44 PM:

Minitel! It's still in operation, but only for another six weeks or so.

#26 ::: Serge Broom ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2012, 01:59 PM:

OtterB @ 23... :-) I should probably watch those darn movies again, if only because of Bob Newhart as a martial-arts-using Action Librarian.

#27 ::: Terry Karney ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2012, 02:12 PM:

Not to be more of what I was, but the lack of that is what I've struggled with in the past. I will see if it's better in the libraries here, in New Jersey, than it was in LA, or Palo Alto.

I suspect the greatest problem with the updating of systems is cost. Once the system has been put in, that's what one has until it fails. Budgets (at least in much of Calif.) haven't lent themselves to replacing outdated systems in public libraries.

#28 ::: joe McMahon ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2012, 02:36 PM:

I will forever be grateful to the not-so-very-big library in my hometown. Huge props to my parents for getting me a library card very early indeed - though that was probably self-defense, as I think they found me doggedly working my way through the encyclopedia as I'd run out of anything else interesting to read...

Still remember my (four-digit) library card number, with the stamping machine for checkout. Loved that thing, as with each *kerchunk*, I knew that I had several more hours of enjoyment on the way.

That was the place that solidified my loves of mysteries, science fiction, and jazz (once I was old enough to check out records).

#29 ::: OtterB ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2012, 02:40 PM:

Serge @26, I've never seen the movies, but I think I'm going to have to.

#30 ::: OtterB ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2012, 02:49 PM:

The pattern of the sunlight on the oak,
The crisp-edged cards, and those that showed long wear -
The catalog was altar for the folk
Who first found secret doors awaiting there.
We don't regret the net's far-ranging blitz;
There's breadth and depth to love within the new.
But all is not contained within its bits,
Nor does it marshal everything to view.
The seeking is the thing, no matter how,
Down dim-lit stacks or mousing through the links.
Connection bridges distance, "past" is "now",
The branching path lies clear to one who thinks.
A spark of knowledge catches and takes flight
And opens wide the windows to the light.

#31 ::: Nancy Lebovitz ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2012, 03:27 PM:

abi @ 8

I was hoping to see the copperplate. Oh, well.

Are there good general discussions about how systems for organizing knowledge are incomplete? There always seem to be mistakes, practical jokes and scams, variant spellings (there was a long list of the way names can be difficult for computers-- I saw it during the nym wars-- does anyone have a link?), trying to find commonly used names for things, and probably more that I'm not thinking of.

To put it another way, the thing I liked best in Name of the Wind was the difficulties of organizing a magical library.

#32 ::: joann ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2012, 03:41 PM:

Half a lifetime ago, the Austin Public Library sort of, kind of, digitzed their card catalog. I use the qualifiers because what resulted was not a computer database, but a giant microfilm of the printout of their holdings, with a single (AIRecall) reader machine that had only two controls, buttons to go forward or backward. It was the world's most inconvenient machine, and would have made the worst database imaginable look like a stunning improvement.

We left Austin to move to Palo Alto for a few years, and I got (don't ask how) a Stanford library card. They had a computerized catalog (can't remember if the hardcopies had already been disappeared) with an astonishing feature: the "browse" function. Find a book, and then browse what's shelved on either side of it.

#33 ::: dcb ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2012, 04:10 PM:

OtterB @30: Oh! Lovely - thank you for that.

#34 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2012, 04:15 PM:

OtterB @30:

Thank you. Well done.

Nancy @31:

Neither the card nor the T-shirt nor the sunlit wood, alas. The accidents pass away, but the essence remains. Information transmission is like that sometimes.

#35 ::: Caroline ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2012, 04:28 PM:

I find myself surprised that people only 10 years younger than me would never have been into the stacks of a university library. And yet, I realize that as a grad student who does huge amounts of literature search -- I rarely have to go into the stacks myself. Maybe once or twice a semester, to get an article available only as a book chapter, or photocopy an article from a journal with arbitrarily limited online access. (I personally enjoy it when the online access is only from, like, 1992 to 2004. I can understand not having older articles, because of the time and personnel it would take to scan and OCR them all. But newer articles were almost certainly submitted in electronic form. Why not make them available online to subscribing institutions? But that gets into a whole nother topic about scientific journal publishers and copyright and paywalls.)

I've actually gone a few times on "unofficial interlibrary loan" missions -- a friend of mine at another college/university needs a copy of an article, but their library has no access to it at all, so I go pull it from the stacks, scan it, and send them the PDF. (I do not OCR it for them. I mean, yeesh.)

I guess the thing is that Professor Downey's course is for first-year students. It's entirely possible they've never had to research anything that required information not available online. However, as their college career progresses, they're more and more likely to run into a research situation where some crucial bit of information is in a print-only source, and therefore to be motivated to go and dig it up. This assignment just forces that situation to happen sooner.

And it forces it to happen in a context where they can think about the causes and effects of things being or not being digitized. That's the really important thing here -- not "kids these days and their wikipedia, they need to learn how to check out a book," but questioning the ways in which information is accessible and inaccessible.

On real and hypothetical curmudgeonliness: While I love library stacks for their "temple of knowledge" vibe, and printed, bound books are comfort objects to me, I have absolutely no feeling that non-digital information is superior.

Online, digital access has let me tremendously speed up my learning process. When I'm reading a paper, I can look up its references immediately, and clear up any questions I have about where the authors got some assumption or value. I can easily search for all papers which cite the one I'm reading now, to see what's been done more recently -- and immediately grab those papers. I can spend my time reading those papers, rather than combing the stacks and making photocopies. I can archive papers I've read and search their text when I need to remind myself of something. Basically, I can access much more information much faster and search it in multiple ways, many of which wouldn't even be possible if it were all print.

I remember writing a college term paper on liberation theology and having dozens of library books stacked around my desk, with hundreds of haphazard scraps of paper sticking out of them as makeshift bookmarks, frantically searching for a particular quotation that would nail the argument I was trying to make -- and saying to my roommate "Why can't they have ctrl-F for books?!" I stand by that remark. If nothing else, searchability is a reason to go digital.

And yet -- it raises issues of access. Who can afford a computer and home internet service; who can afford to attend a university whose library can pay for online access to all of these journals; who lives in a town or county where the public library gets enough funding to provide computers, internet, or subscriptions to these online services. Who has a disability that makes it easier or harder to access print information vs. digital information. Which publishers have the money and desire to shift formats of previously-published stuff. And so forth.

It's good to think about these things, rather than arguing "{Print|digital} is always better!"

#36 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2012, 04:40 PM:

Serge Broom @ 26 -- Just last night, I got to interview the only librarian who actually has an action figure of her (that I know of) -- Nancy Pearl. It was great fun.

#37 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2012, 04:44 PM:

I should probably clarify, by the way, that UC Berkeley had an open-stack undergraduate library, but that the graduate libraries, and many of the specialist libraries, were closed-stack. So although anyone with a student ID could brows the general reference materials, most of the really interesting collections required one to identify the required resources and request them at the front desk.

The course I took both taught us how to do that really well and removed the need to do so, since at the end of it we got a pass to all of the closed-stack collections. Very intricate places, those stacks, full of unexpected staircases, complex shelving arrangements, and stressed-out grad students hiding from unnamed terrors. One learned to go slowly, quietly, and placatingly.

I don't expect that Downey's students ended up quite that deep in academic library culture. I hope not, for their sanity. Some things require a bit more preparation.

#38 ::: Nancy Lebovitz ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2012, 04:55 PM:

I've been cranky about things lately, I think, but my riff about the reference system never quite matching the knowledge is actually mixed.

I think it's kind of cool that the real world is always escaping the systems we use to try to fully understand it, and that useful as abstractions are, you can't get away from having to know details.

And part of what's cool about archaeology and such is that you can't be sure what the essence and the accidents are. If I were studying copperplate, I'd care more about the writing than the content.

#39 ::: geekosaur ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2012, 04:57 PM:

Aaaaand now I'm wondering where the closed-stacks fantasy RPG is.

#40 ::: joann ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2012, 05:21 PM:

abi #37:

Back in ye olden days (early 70s), UTAustin had the Main Library and the Undergraduate Library, supplemented by several subject-matter libraries strewn over campus. The UGL was of course open stack, and had been built in the 60s partly to compensate for the sins of the closed-stackedness of the main library, which would not have reacted well to being open to all, crammed as it was into 17 floors of the tower that sits next to the Main Building. The first six floors of the main library were pretty darn big, but then it got a lot smaller, and access was either by stairs or by a single elevator roughly the size of a very small coat closet. I swear I remember the elevator involving a rope; it certainly scared the bejabbers out of me, so I got a lot of exercise one semester when there was a bunch of stuff I needed on the 16th floor.

Grad students had stack passes; you could get one as an undergrad, but had to know the secret password, which was to get a note from a professor. Oddly enough, once you had one, you never lost it--it stayed attached to your ID card as a little tree-shaped punchout.

Abi, you remember the light on the card catalog; I remember the light in certain areas of the stacks, and of course the smell, that unique mix of old books, janitorial fluid, prison-made soap in the loos, and floors polished by 35 years or so of scholars tromping round. Down on the first floor, things got a trifle less scholarly but much more fun for me, for there resided the Campbell Collection, which seemed to contain every mystery novel written between 1910 and 1970, which was when they converted to LC and started filing new books somewhere else.

They built a new main library in the late 70s, all carpets, walnut-ended shelves, bright colors, padded but essentially uncomfortable chairs, no smells whatever. The then-Chairman of the Regents distinguished himself mightily by announing that "it's as big as five K-Marts." Of course it's open stack, and so eventually (like 5 years or so ago) the last of the books in the UGL were sent either to the main library or to some mysterious place of storage. There have been catalog terminals on every floor of the main library since 1988 if not earlier, and the catalog drawers finally vanished ten or fifteen years ago.

#41 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2012, 05:23 PM:

OtterB #30: Nicely done.

#42 ::: Steve with a book ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2012, 05:44 PM:

A skill I never quite picked up as a postgrad student was the skill of photocopying excerpts from thick bound journal volumes that won't sit nicely on the photocopier. You don't want to go to the bother of ordering the volume from the off-site warehouse (only recent volumes were actually on the shelves), waiting for the library to tell you it's arrived, and then once you've copied it find that a long equation on a verso page disappears squashed into the grey between-page gutter. As Caroline @35 pointed out, following up references was often damned inconvenient.

My favourite bit of my old university library had lots of 19th-century maths and science stuff that still counts as 'inaccessible' even if when (as is now often the case) it's available online. Primary sources are often completely unreadable or irrelevant now. Einstein's early-C20 papers on relativity don't get cited as often as you might think; the basic equations of SR and GR are just stuff that everyone knows. And if you want to read the first few pages of this collection of Gauss's papers you'll need good scientific Latin and good knowledge of tough mathematics done in what's now a very old-fashioned way. Enormous amounts of Victorian mathematics just don't get looked at any more—all that Euclidean geometry that geometers aren't particularly interested in, and Theory of Equations stuff that mutated into matrix/determinant/ideal theory with totally different notation. Only a specialist historian of a particular area of maths would bother to search this stuff out, which is a shame.

There were some gorgeous old engineering journals there too, with the most beautiful technical diagrams of modern (late-C19) locomotives. It was sobering to consider how much hard-won knowledge was in there, and indeed how many rules of thumb and tricks of the trade were known to all the readers but never got written down anywhere and are now lost.

#43 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2012, 05:55 PM:

Berkeley was slightly more complex than you talk about in 37, abi (at least in my early years there). The Main library had closed stacks -- that was where a lot of the really cool older books were. Most of the specialty libraries were open-stack (the Biology Library included one of my favorite journals ever, the Atlas of Stereo-Roentgenology (a journal devoted solely to stereo-pair x-rays!). That didn't include Bancroft, the rare-books library (when I started out, it was just a room in the main library rather than a research center -- fond memories of the William Blake engravings on the walls, and reading The Knave of Hearts for the Parrish illustrations and the Kelmscott Chaucer because the typography slowed me down enough that I'd actually pay attention to the words). Used to was, there was a card in the card catalog for the Wormius edition of the Necronomicon, which was supposedly in "Locked Case B." And yes, I did look at the card, so I know this isn't an Urban Legend.

UCB is an LC library, which (IME) facilitated finding similar works -- they tend to be on the shelf nearby. It's not that different from Dewey, much less so than Ranganathan's faceted classification systems which really want computer indexing to make them useful.

#44 ::: Bruce Cohen (Speaker to Managers) ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2012, 07:00 PM:

OtterB @ 30:

Very nice. There's a smell to some card catalogs that your poem evoked.

Re: The Librarian movies. Yes, you should see them; they're a great deal of fun. Sort of like the guilty pleasure of reading old pulp magazines in the library's reading room.

#45 ::: Tehanu ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2012, 07:14 PM:

In the even more remote late 1960s, at UCLA, I won an essay contest in my freshman year and got a stack pass to the Graduate Research Library. I never set foot in the undergrad library again (until I went to grad school for a library degree!). Actually, I spent more time in the stacks than in classes; lectures might be boring, the stacks never were. And oh, the books that I found there! William Morris' "The Roots of the Mountains," Bloomsbury memoirs, John Buchan, E.R. Eddison -- gosh, I miss those days, even though it's easier to find those kinds of books now.

#46 ::: Serge Broom ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2012, 08:30 PM:

Tom Whitmore @ 36... I'd be curious to see a photo of that. Say, that's not the Action Figure that lifts one arm to shush you, is it?

#47 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2012, 08:56 PM:

Serge: it is indeed. And she said that you could tell whether a librarian had a sense of humor or not by whether s/he found the shushing action funny.

#48 ::: blnicol ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2012, 09:36 PM:

Thank you for the happy memories! For me, it was the stacks at Widener Library at Harvard - since I was at the Div school at the time, I spent a fair amount of time in the Pusey stacks. Getting there felt a bit like getting into the headquarters of Get Smart: into the main reading room, past the desk with the ID, up some stairs, follow signs past a few shelves, down some other stairs, down a rickety elevator, through a drafty corridor, past a heavy door, and then pushing the button to move those massive and scary moving shelves until the prize was reached - with endless off-topic, term-paper-destroying distraction along the way. (I think they've fixed the approach to the tunnel to be more rational, not to mention accessible, since I was there, but that's how it was at that time.) Richard Marius captures the feel of that large and quiet basement, and the joy of discovering the book that no one has opened since it was catalogued, in his classic essay On Working in Widener.
I wish someone would write the murder mystery he suggests - it seems quite plausible that some aspiring academic could squash a rival in the Pusey shelving and no one would know for quite some time...

#49 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2012, 09:57 PM:

blnicol #48: Ah yes, the labyrinth at Widener... way dimmer than you'd expect for a library, age-worn floors, and reading cubbies tucked around the edges of the shelf area. Supposedly, the original bequest specified that once built, no brick nor stone of the library could be changed¹, so when they built an extension, it was linked to Widener proper by a tunnel built to what had been (large) window. And externally, that building looked like a High Temple Of Knowledge....

¹ Presumably excluding for repair -- I heard they managed to get that overturned somewhat after my time.

#50 ::: Terry Karney ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2012, 10:26 PM:

When I get my degree (any old time now... I have way too many credits and not enough paper and the VA owes me two years of vocational training. The training I want requires a BA to get done in two years, so...), and should I move back to the LA area, I will apply to be a reader at the Huntington.

Brains aren't required, just a BA.

#51 ::: Paula Helm Murray ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2012, 10:43 PM:

Ah, wonderful memories. My first Real Job was at Watson Library (U. Kans.) in their Acquisitions department. One of our side jobs was to help with various card catalog projects.

We were doing a major overhaul of it, and discovered that there was a Britain subject header, there was a whole smaller subset (I think it was all put into the card catalog at approximately the same date) of Britian.

The other memory was doing something that involved pretty much going down the catalog in a linear fashion for a particular reason that escapes me now, down from the mists of time. A patron who was wearing a particularly obnoxious cologne, who obviously bathed in the stuff, kept coming up right next to me -- it made my nose and sinuses unload. Caused quite a bit of humor in our work room (I kept going back and blowing my nose again and again and again).

#52 ::: Erik Nelson ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2012, 10:49 PM:

Steve with a book at 42: I think it was Prof. Joseph Weinstock at Oberlin whose big thing was reading and translating the original of Newton's Principia Mathematica.

#53 ::: forgot the name ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2012, 11:07 PM:

I had to google what a card catalog was.

The time and effort that must've been put into its upkeep amazes me. What happens if you make a mistake? New card? Do you cross it out? Didn't anyone have issues with reading the writing? I imagine it got sloppy after the zillionth card. Didn't anyone steal the boxes? What did people do if the cards got wet? How do you cross-reference if it's one card at a time? Fascinating.

#54 ::: Nicole Fitzhugh ::: (view all by) ::: April 13, 2012, 11:47 PM:

Abi, it was so wonderful to read this post! I also took that class-- it was my favorite of all the classes I took, and that's saying a lot. When I was wondering what to do with my life, mid-career, I remembered with a physical shock those joyous moments of searching GLADIS and MELVYL, of walking into Doe's beautiful wooden Main Stacks room and filling out stack requests, of getting my card and wandering through the glass-floored stacks. Now I'm studying Library Science, and am happier than I was in years. (Ironically, my program is completely online.)

I also remember finding a book containing dirty versions of college fight songs in the undergrad library. Let's just say if I ever met a Georgia Tech student I was prepared to run the other way.

#55 ::: David Goldfarb ::: (view all by) ::: April 14, 2012, 02:46 AM:

Steve with a book @42: I worked in a photocopy shop for two decades, and copying out of thick hardcovers really never got noticeably easier. It's just difficult, something photocopiers weren't really designed to do.

#56 ::: shadowsong ::: (view all by) ::: April 14, 2012, 03:12 AM:

Someone should come up with a saddle-photocopier.

#58 ::: C. Wingate ::: (view all by) ::: April 14, 2012, 08:47 AM:

I should mention that UMCP's libraries in my day were (and as far as I know still are) open stack. UGLI1 2 also held some of the special collections, including all the media collections. They eventually consolidated everything into McKeldin and converted UGLI (now known as Hornbake) into offices for various programs, essentially building a second library behind the first. Even then (as you can see in the photos from my first link) there are large areas with sliding shelves so they can back in more stuff. Ages ago their electronic catalogue had a "run back and forth as if through a card catalogue" but I think that's gone now.

Meanwhile, the central library at Enoch Pratt is mostly closed stack. Either they have terrible shelvers or a lot of theft, because when I've gone up there they've tended to have only about 80% chance of finding what I asked for. They also have their own numbering system.

1 which was NOT named the Marvin Mandel Library after all: they eventually renamed it after some obscure administrator
2 and, yes, that was its code in the school directory

#59 ::: Lori Coulson ::: (view all by) ::: April 14, 2012, 09:53 AM:

Terry Carney @13:

While I loathed the Library of Congress system from the first time I encountered it at age 17 in the Ohio State University Libraries. (And yes, the card catalog area there was big enough to hold a basketball court.)

But I'd been helping in my school libraries since I was in sixth grade -- Dewey Decimal System, i.e., "a place for everything and every thing in its place..."

I suspect that what upset me was that a book I was hunting could be shelved in any number of places, and the campus was large enough that finding it might require more time than I had at hand. I hadn't twigged to the fact that as a student I could summon the book to my dorm or the closest library and pick it up there.

But I still hate the Library of Congress system.

#60 ::: Lori Coulson ::: (view all by) ::: April 14, 2012, 10:14 AM:

And damn and blast, how did I manage to type "C"arney instead of "K"arney? It sure as shooting isn't a transposition error.

(Not enough coffee in system yet...)

#61 ::: Debra Doyle ::: (view all by) ::: April 14, 2012, 11:05 AM:

I had to google what a card catalog was.

Sic transit gloria mundi.

I'm another who never really warmed to the Library of Congress system.

It didn't help that the UPenn library, during the time I was there, was in the (long, slow) process of transitioning from the Dewey Decimal system to the Library of Congress one, and half of the books I needed on any given subject were likely to be in one place and half in the other. Also, entire shelves full of books had a tendency to disappear for a while and turn up several weeks later (long after I'd finished whatever project I'd wanted them for) on the other side of the library with new call numbers on their spines.

#62 ::: Finny ::: (view all by) ::: April 14, 2012, 12:01 PM:

Am I the only person who likes the Library of Congress system better than Dewey? I find it easier, and to me it makes more sense.

#63 ::: Terry Karney ::: (view all by) ::: April 14, 2012, 12:10 PM:

I don't find LC to be as automatic as Dewey, I have to code-shift into it.

regarding copying of books. I seem to recall seeing a prism, which allows for placing a book over a copier. It was, IIRC, being used in the preservation of books falling apart from acid damage.

forgot the name: Yes, maintaining a card catalog was work. I'd say about 1/3rd my time working in the Library at my high school was spent working with cards, in one way or another. Typing them up, collating them; double checking someone else's collating, helping students find things; looking things up.

#64 ::: Serge Broom ::: (view all by) ::: April 14, 2012, 12:17 PM:

Finny @ 62... who likes the Library of Congress system better than Dewey?

There are probably days when Donald Duck prefers the Library to Dewey, Huey or Louie.
As for Bruce Dern, he did ask Dewey to keep the forest alive.

#65 ::: marek ::: (view all by) ::: April 14, 2012, 12:41 PM:

A card catalogue? How very new fangled.

When I started as a student, much navigation of the Bodleian at Oxford was accomplished through huge leather-bound folios, with slips pasted on the pages by generations of librarians, from sepia copperplate through to daringly modern electric typewriter.

The old British Museum round reading room - alas now semi-permanently invisible underneath temporary exhibitions - had a similar, though more utilitarian system. You found the volume you needed, looked up its call number and filled in a little slip. There was no telling when the books would start to appear on your desk - some in minutes, some in hours, some in days. And some slips would come back stamped with a message that the item requested had been destroyed by enemy action in the second world war. Knowledge suddenly seemed very ephemeral.

#66 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: April 14, 2012, 12:44 PM:

C. Wingate, #57: I found a great pun in the comments on one of those pictures.

#67 ::: geekosaur ::: (view all by) ::: April 14, 2012, 01:25 PM:

I'm in kind of an odd place there: I know Dewey better but find LC more logical, so in practice I prefer LC but can still find stuff faster with Dewey....

#68 ::: Tracie ::: (view all by) ::: April 14, 2012, 01:26 PM:

forgot the name #53: In the 70s I was a foreign language cataloger in a very large specialty library, the size of many major university libraries of the time. We still had hand written cards from the 19th century. The handwriting was easy to read because people were taught penmanship in those days. It did not deteriorate because libraries were smaller and there were not gazillions of cards in the catalog, and the card scribes were not churning out hundreds of cards a day.
Also, there were fewer cards per book -- not as many subject headings as today. There were also typewritten cards, cards photocopied from typewritten originals, and printed cards bought from the Library of Congress or OCLC and modified or corrected. (We used a unique proprietary classification system and modified subject headings). Corrections were made on any kind of card by crossing out, erasing (electric erasers), scraping with an exacto knife, or whiting-out with correction fluid, then making the correction by hand or typewriter. Or making a new card.
We never had to deal with wet cards when I was there, but I imagine they would need to be replaced while wearing gloves and masks, as they would have mildewed, forgotten in the rush to preserve and conserve the books and maps.

I learned some unusual but generally useless skills in this job, such as typing at 40 wpm Cyrillic transliterated into Roman letters. I could also type about 25 wpm on an elegant old Russian manual typewriter that probably survived the revolution.

#69 ::: grackle ::: (view all by) ::: April 14, 2012, 01:28 PM:

I'm another who prefers LofC. I suspect that it stems from working in a Dewey system library as an undergrad shelving bound engineering journals, which under Dewey have numbingly long numbers. At Berkeley, in the early years of Melvyl and while there was still a card catalog, there was a period when entries were entered into the computer system, placed on microfiches and printed onto the catalog cards. Then,IIRC, the most recent items had to be looked up on the microfiches as they were planning to do away with the card system. Long story short, I ended up owning a set of the microfiches. I don't know if I still have them- I did toss out the reader I got from UC surplus properties after the catalog became accessible online, from home.

Still, I lament the loss of the card catalog and can't help agreeing with Nicholas Baker that its abandonment is a mistake. If one has a lot of references to look up, typing each in n a keyboard is a great deal more work than it was to scan through the cards and inevitably takes longer, especially in transliterated languages.

I know that more than one Berkeley professor also complained to no avail over the movement of vast amounts of material to off-site storage where, even with physical access, one cannot do a shelf search since material is bar coded and then stored by size rather than subject.

#70 ::: Tracie glares at the gnomes ::: (view all by) ::: April 14, 2012, 01:31 PM:

Okay, guys ... What seems to be the problem?

[It was a borked link. -- JDM]

#71 ::: Roquat Rufus, Rex Gnomi ::: (view all by) ::: April 14, 2012, 01:50 PM:

My dear Tracie,

As you surmised in your first flagging post, your link was borked. The usual cause is a lack of quote marks around the URL, but of course, there are so many things that can go wrong. We do appreciate when people have a quick look at preview stage.

Your subsequent posts were directed to our attention because you greeted us in a fashion that spammers do. Purest bad luck. Besides, we're lonely, and you sound like a good conversationalist. Do you like chocolate biscuits?

Also, grackle, my friend, may I impress upon you the value of putting a space after a comma? Many spammers who use scripts to assemble their missives from disparate clauses use commas as breakpoints, and not all of them are immune from that variety of fencepost error that results in a lack of space at the start of the next clause.

#72 ::: Daniel Martin ::: (view all by) ::: April 14, 2012, 04:05 PM:

This is briefly touched on at the end of the professor's blog post, but I think it should be explored more that what the students were asked to do in this assignment might be illegal, and if legal was legal in large part only because it was done as part of an academic assignment. (*) Also, some authors apparently consider this behavior (finding something undigitized but still under copyright, scanning it and storing it digitally and then sharing access to the digital version with someone) some sort of huge violation of their rights.

I don't understand this attitude, but I know that it exists. This is after all the primary complaint behind the suit filed against Google in 2005 to prevent them from digitizing the contents of the University of Michigan's library system.

(I am not a lawyer, so my failure to understand an attitude underlying a complaint should not be considered any sort of commentary on the legal merit of any particular lawsuit)

(*) The boundaries on what constitutes fair use in US copyright law are so vague and in flux that I certainly can't keep track.

#73 ::: Keith Edwards ::: (view all by) ::: April 14, 2012, 04:26 PM:

I did searches like these for my Reference Class while in Grad School getting my MLS. We would have to find an item using non-electronic resources and then find it using electronic resources, and compare and contrast. other times we were given strict limits on which databases we could search. Good times.

#74 ::: Melissa Mead ::: (view all by) ::: April 14, 2012, 04:26 PM:

I love libraries. I can spend hours in them. I don't miss card catalogs, though. For somebody with cerebral palsy, who couldn't drive or walk to the local library, couldn't reach the top drawers or shelves, and tended to drop the cards, the card catalog was an obstacle to overcome in order to get to the books.

The Internet opens up worlds to people who don't get out much.

#75 ::: Linkmeister ::: (view all by) ::: April 14, 2012, 05:24 PM:

Somehow I've never seen or even heard of electric erasers.


#76 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: April 14, 2012, 05:24 PM:

I also prefer LC to Dewey, in part because I think it's a bit more flexible. And I actually had a low-level job at LC for a while, many years ago.

#77 ::: Janet Brennan Croft ::: (view all by) ::: April 14, 2012, 10:18 PM:

Re copiers: There ARE copiers now that allow you to hold a book face down and halfway-open with the edge of the copier as far into the gutter as it will go. But these days face-up scanners with auto-correcting features are where the action is at. If you want to see something really cool, look up the scanners used for the Google books project -- the book is cradled about 1/2 open, and there are two cameras, one pointed at each page.

#78 ::: Emily H. ::: (view all by) ::: April 14, 2012, 10:25 PM:

I really miss academic libraries.

One of my few good memories from my high school years was tramping across UNC-Chapel Hill's campus to the main library to work on a research paper. Even after I graduated (with my library science degree!) I used to go over to Duke whenever I could -- $35 bought me a year of borrower privileges, even as a non-alum.

Now I'm in New York, and while NYPL is beautiful (though I'm not thrilled with the amount of stuff they're moving to offsite storage) it's depressing to know that I can't even get in the door at the Columbia or NYU libraries for less than $1000 a year.

#79 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: April 15, 2012, 01:19 AM:

For library access, buying a life membership in the UC alumni association was one of the best investments I could make: paid for itself at the then-current library access fee rates in 6 years, but they raised the rates significantly in 3 years....

Even if I don't use it (or live in the area any more) it's nice to know I have the chance to.

#80 ::: Tracie ::: (view all by) ::: April 15, 2012, 01:19 AM:

Ah, Rufus! A space after a comma. Well, that's what I get for using an iPhone. Also why the link was borked, though I thought I checked it in the preview. Anyway, I do like chocolate biscuits, as well as chocolate in other forms. I recently discovered Southern Tier Chokolat, an 11% chocolate stout that actually tastes like chocolate. Mmmmmm. I don't normally try chocolate stouts because they never taste like chocolate, but Oh. My.

#81 ::: Dave Bell ::: (view all by) ::: April 15, 2012, 04:39 AM:

The sensor chip in a modern camera, 14.1 MP, could record a 16in by 9in image at better than 300 dpi, if I have done the arithmetic right.

It is the lens optics that limit most cameras, and the way colour information is recorded.

A scanner that used that technology would not be as thin as the scanners we are used to. But it wouldn't need the moving parts to move the scanning sensor across the page.

I wonder how many mobile phones have the resolution to get a readable image of a page, but James Bond doesn't need to use a Minox any more, and he could send the images to M over the internet, and he wouldn't be carrying anything that would incriminate him just by being exotic.

#82 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: April 15, 2012, 12:28 PM:

My partner's digicam saved his daughter's senior thesis project. She had to have copies of a certain (fairly large) set of papers in a branch of the library which was closing down for 18 months of renovation in 3 hours, and the copier was taking almost 5 minutes to print a single page. She called for help, we got the camera down there, and she just took pictures of everything she needed. She said later that the photos were more useful than copies would have been, because the images were larger and she could zoom in to decipher things.

#83 ::: Bruce E. Durocher II ::: (view all by) ::: April 15, 2012, 06:38 PM:

Dave Bell: There's info out there (Instructables?) on how to build a scanner which features a plexiglass A with cameras underneath so that both pages of a book can be digitized at once with minimal distortion: I think the original version was for folks that were scanning text for Gutenberg...

#84 ::: Syd ::: (view all by) ::: April 15, 2012, 07:23 PM:

Because it hasn't been mentioned yet, may I recommend to your attention the 1957 Tracy and Hepburn film Desk Set? Undoubtedly not even remotely PC in numerous ways (starting with gur jnl Urcohea'f punenpgre zbbaf nobhg bire Tvt Lbhat'f punenpgre, abg gb zragvba gur Zrkvpna Nirahr ohf--rot13'd to avoid potential spoilers), but might still be a fun watch about what happens when a computer comes to the reference library of a television station.

My first paid job--"paid job" as in employed by some entity other than a friend of my mom's to do housework or housesitting--was at a library. And the stock joke was, "Syd, could you please clean out your car? We need to get some books back on the shelves."

I heart libraries. I liked card catalogs, but who knows how much havoc might have been wrought--and what kinds of things we might have missed out on--because somebody removed a card to find the book and didn't put the card back? I appreciate the current library search engines for that reason, but just leafing through the cards could be such fun...not to mention informative.

#85 ::: Caroline ::: (view all by) ::: April 15, 2012, 08:49 PM:

A tangential thought:

My mother (who got her MLS in 1987) and I have interesting conversations about public libraries and digital information. She worries that people my age think public libraries are irrelevant, since we have the internet and Google. (I have heard people try to argue that public libraries are irrelevant and obsolete given the internet, so this worry isn't entirely unfounded.)

I say that to my way of thinking, public libraries exist to provide public access to information -- and that is still very much needed.

First of all, not everyone can afford a computer and broadband internet. (In some places, you can't get broadband internet for any price.) Anyone my age who doesn't understand that needs to get a major reality check. Public libraries provide free computer and internet access, which is a crucial way of making information accessible to everyone. My local public library branch has masses of computers, which are always in use (they have a time-limited sign-up system). There is clearly a need being filled.

Second, for certain kinds of digital information, it makes more sense to pool resources and share access, as a public library does, rather than have everyone buy it for themselves. For example, the last couple of times I've researched major purchases, I wanted to look up reviews and ratings in Consumer Reports and other, more topic-specific magazines. In order to access the archives of those periodicals, I would have had to buy subscriptions and/or pay fairly high per-article fees -- the cost would have prevented me from accessing those articles. Luckily, my public library subscribes to a database of periodicals including the magazines I wanted to check. I was able to log in at the library website using my library card number and access the information I needed for free, right from home. That's an incredibly useful service.

Third, printed books and periodicals are certainly still relevant. As previously mentioned, not everyone owns a computer. Not everyone owns an e-reader, either. Not all books are published in electronic form. Not everyone prefers to read everything in electronic form. Public access to print materials is obviously still important.

Fourth, even as more material becomes available in electronic form, it's just as important to have free public access to e-books as to printed books, for all the same reasons. My public library also has audiobooks and DVDs -- non-print formats for information, but still an important public good to have them available to everyone, regardless of their ability to buy them individually.

Essentially, libraries are about information, not just books. Even if print books do become obsolete -- which I doubt very seriously -- public libraries will still be needed. Anyone who understands why public libraries were needed pre-internet ought to understand why they're needed just as much now.

#86 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: April 15, 2012, 09:53 PM:

Caroline, #85: In any of the ongoing discussions about the "obsoleteness" of public libraries, printed books, etc. there's a line from Asimov's "The Winnowing" that always comes to my mind:

"It struck him that those who talked about the necessity of abandoning the hungry were all themselves well-fed."

In any online conversation about electronic vs. print media, or about the necessity of public libraries, anyone who can participate is equivalently among the well-fed.

#87 ::: Gennis ::: (view all by) ::: April 15, 2012, 11:47 PM:

I spent all my time either in the children's or SF sections of my public library, which were alphabetic by author, so I never really learned the Dewey decimal system. I'm repeatedly surprised by the odd arrangements when looking up non-fiction for my kid.

In college, I worked in the stacks shelving books* which meant I learned the LC system. Once I'd worked there for a while my first approach to research was to head to the section of the stacks where the sort of book I was looking for tended to be. Second was probably Melvyl, though half the fun of that was that a few of us had hijacked the feedback section as a kind of chat room.

Working as a shelver got me into parts of the library I'd probably never have visited, parts that aren't there any more, like the really old bit that you had to get to for reshelving work by taking the book truck through the librarian's work area to get to the old cage elevator to head down to the dim section with the narrow aisles a half-floor off from the rest of the building. The building had been added to in pieces over the years, so there were the old bits, and the newer bits with windows, and then my last year the brand new wings opened. They never felt quite right. Not enough dust, I guess, though I did enjoy the day not long before opening when the scrub jay got in through an unfinished part and we had to try to chase it out.

* and shelf reading, and dusting, and moving large quantities of books from one place to another to accommodate construction. My initial hire was because an entire wing needed to be emptied over the summer. Lots of other odd tasks got added in - measuring the number of inches of books on shelves, using a tiny printing press to make the call number tags for the shelves, driving around campus in a van to collect books from the remote book return boxes. To this day I can't help straightening the books on the shelves when I'm in a library.

#88 ::: Jo MacQueen ::: (view all by) ::: April 16, 2012, 01:38 AM:

OtterB at #30: Just when I thought I had everything that was going into that very decorative collection of commonplaces I'm working on in my spare time, something else suggests that it is worthy of being granted space within the pages being made. So I will grant it that space. Thank you, OtterB; and thank you, abi, for writing the post that inspired it.

#89 ::: Diatryma ::: (view all by) ::: April 16, 2012, 08:12 AM:

I'm not hugely card-catalog-motivated; I know I've used them, but I was never taught how, so a lot of what you're saying about subject headings and such went right over my head. But I was not a great explorer-- I never even walked the perimeter of the children's section, where the hardcover books were. Same in college. The engineering library was a place to go if you needed a nap in the beanbags downstairs or wanted to visit a friend's dissertation, not for anything like research.

So I love the idea of libraries and I like reading about everyone's experiences with them, but for the most part*, I haven't had the transcendant moments.

*Parasitology, sophomore year of college, we had a question on a take-home test about the first mention of a parasite or something like that. I was confused and asked if this meant a parasite or any parasite, but was afraid of looking stupid and so did not phrase the question so I got the right answer. I found the new-species paper for something discovered in the sixties. That was fun.

#90 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: April 16, 2012, 01:33 PM:

Relevant interesting link: the University of Iowa's CARTalog: art using cards from their card catalog.

(I think I'll be Parheliating this as well.)

#91 ::: Jacque ::: (view all by) ::: April 16, 2012, 02:16 PM:

forgot the name @53: Didn't anyone steal the boxes?

This-all is why the scene in The Breakfast Club where Judge Reinhold's character is deliberately scrambling the cards in a catalog drawer is so appalling. (And leads one to wonder why the hell they had the miscreants caged in the library and not someplace relatively "safe" like the cafeteria.)

#92 ::: Xopher HalfTongue ::: (view all by) ::: April 16, 2012, 02:59 PM:

Jacque, I think you mean Judd Nelson. Judge Reinhold was the guy in Beverly Hills Cop and Ruthless People, but he wasn't in The Breakfast Club.

#93 ::: clew ::: (view all by) ::: April 16, 2012, 03:02 PM:

The face-up saddle scanners are not too hard to make yourself, as there are enough enthusiasts to have worked out a lot of bugs (e.g., you can get most of a scanner cut at Ponoko, and they've worked out which old-enough-to-be-cheap cameras will play well).

#94 ::: Jacque ::: (view all by) ::: April 16, 2012, 03:32 PM:

Xopher: Yes. Right. (What I get for assuming my memory is accurate.) :o)

#95 ::: Jason ::: (view all by) ::: April 22, 2012, 11:00 PM:

A couple of decades ago, I used to be a searcher-inputter and the Regenstein Library at the U. of Chicago and one of the things that you had to do to keep your job was pass a test of how fast you could locate about 20 specific cards in the catalog. It was actually fairly difficult because of the very nit-picky rules about filing order that was sometimes not exactly intuitive. Mc vs. Mac comes to mind as one of the difficulties, but I could be wrong.

I've never used a library where I didn't have full stack privileges except the Library of Congress. I hated having to fill out their stupid little request forms and then to wait for them to be delivered. I love to walk the shelves and see what's there of interest, many fascinating discoveries made that way.

#96 ::: Cadbury Moose agrees it's spam ::: (view all by) ::: May 24, 2012, 07:03 AM:

The poster name "computer repair austin" gave this moose pause for thought, as I don't think any Austins were advanced enough for computers - apart from the Maestro, of course, with its irritating voice response unit.

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