When it comes to libraries, there are a couple of ways to size up your next delicious read: you can walk up and down the stacks, picking over titles and authors, weighing prospects by subject or heft; or you can dive into the catalogue and sort through the options there.
For most of my life, going for that second option meant approaching a gigantic oaken chest of small drawers with brass handles and label holders—the card catalogue. For many of us, it’s still a favorite piece of furniture, although as cataloguing has gone digital, it’s been replaced by computer terminals in most libraries.
But even in the days of card-based cataloguing, and certainly since, the Library of Congress has made the fruits of its data-collection effort available to other libraries in the U.S. and around the world, a labor-saving offering that has allowed libraries globally to focus on the myriad other duties of librarianship. I speak for my colleagues and I think my predecessors when I say, “You’re very welcome.”
Here at the Library of Congress, where we were pioneers in electronic cataloguing in the 1960s and 1970s, the old Main Reading Room card catalogue still lines a block-long wall in the subbasement of our Madison Building, providing supplemental information to our research librarians and a warm feeling to our staff.
If you, like me, retain a special place in your heart for the dog-eared cards of a physical catalogue, you might well enjoy The Card Catalog: Books, Cards, and Literary Treasures, a book the Library of Congress is releasing in cooperation with Chronicle Books in time for 2017’s National Library Week. The Card Catalog lays out the history of card cataloguing and includes images of famous cards and books, from our own collections (including the handwritten annotations we prize—which is one of the reasons we hang onto the old physical catalogues).
Not every accrued piece of wisdom makes it across the digital line. The theme for this year’s National Library Week is “Libraries Transform.” Libraries transform us, and they transform themselves. Cataloging began to move from oaken chests to computers five decades ago, and now that most people expect to access knowledge through search engines, it’s time for another transformation, through Bibframe, a bibliographic framework initiative the Library of Congress is leading to link catalogued library collections to the internet.
In the 1960s and 1970s, the towering computer scientist Henriette Avram came to the library to lead a program to computerize catalogues and link libraries via computer. Known as MARC, for machine-readable cataloguing, it took the bibliographic world by storm. Within just a few years, MARC became the standard for all cataloguing across the U.S. and internationally. MARC and its successors, MARC21 and MARCXML, have served us well for more than half a century.
But in the past decade it has become clear that a new method must be created to get this information out of the libraries and into patrons’ hands through the web. It’s time to connect our library tributary to the big river of the internet.
The work ahead is already underway, with advice from our longtime MARC partners the American Library Association, the Online Computer Library Center, the British Library, the Deutsche Nationalbibliothek, Libraries and Archive Canada, and others. Even as our collaborations move forward, MARC must be maintained to meet immediate needs. And care is being taken to ensure that the final result will be useful to all kinds of libraries, large and small, research and public. When this framework ultimately unfolds, the riches of more than a century of cataloguing will eventually be available to library patrons from any computer—and increasingly, so will the books themselves.
But for that full sensory experience—feeling the roughness of the paper, marveling at the workmanship of bindings, catching a whiff of that old-book perfume—you’ll just have to go to the library.
Carla Hayden, a former president of the American Library Association, was sworn in as the 14th librarian of Congress on Sept. 14, 2016. She is the first woman and the first African-American to lead the nation’s library.