We’re past the days of card catalogs, alas: the modern library has long since converted to digital recordkeeping. What this means is that readers request books electronically, and the institution charts those books’ locations electronically, too. If I wanted to see what I had been working on last summer or a decade ago, I could look up my own user record to confirm. Well, I can’t do this right now, but researchers have taken this capacity for granted for a long time. If librarians wanted to see who’d laid hands on a certain volume of Michael Field’s diary, or on the manuscripts or earliest published work of Chaucer, Shakespeare, Shelley, Keats, the Brontës, George Eliot, Virginia Woolf, and so many more writers familiar today and others languishing, awaiting rediscovery, presumably they could, with a simple request within a digital file. Most importantly, if I wanted to request to see a specific book, I could look it up electronically, and then ask the librarians to find the physical copy.
Until Halloween, 2023, that is.
How ironic that the most quaintly analog form of research possible, using physical books in a physical library, has been devastated by the hijacking of a digital system. I am experiencing this irony as especially bitter this morning, having arrived at desk 1086 with my list of tasks, hoping against hope that the crisis had resolved. It hadn’t. I hope it will someday soon.
The books and manuscripts are there, the staff are there, the scholars are there — but the research can’t be done, because without the digital cataloging system there’s no way to access the materials.
There was a period in the Nineties (mainly), when libraries were gradually converting their systems from analog to digital, when you could use either system — though there were always warnings that not everything had been entered into the computer databases. Then, later, the warnings were that newer acquisitions were not to be found in the card catalog.
I had very mixed feelings about all this. In the mid-Nineties I was regularly using telnet to scan the holdings of libraries around the world, and that seemed miraculous to me. (In those years I led several summer study programs that were housed at St. Anne’s College, Oxford, and I could find out in advance which of the books I needed were available at St. Anne’s, at the other Oxford colleges, and at the Bodleian — though access to the Bodleian was hard for outsiders to get in those days.) On the other hand, I loved looking through card catalogs for the same reason I loved browsing the stacks: serendipity. I accepted the end of the card-catalog system, but with regrets.
In every library I regularly used, for some years after the system had gone fully digital the cabinets holding the cards stayed around. There had always been, sitting on those cabinets, pencils and sheets of paper on which you could write the call numbers you needed, but those had been taken away — oddly, because you could use them in exactly the same way you did before to find older books. But we were all being nudged towards the computer terminals. Eventually the cabinets were taken away and replaced by comfy chairs. The smaller cabinets are now widely available on eBay.