The conversation piece in Andrew Pace's living room has shiny brass fittings and a familiar walnut finish. Pace and his wife use the old-fashioned card catalog cabinet to store everything from bottles of wine to flashlight batteries.
Pace spotted the relic at a consignment shop when he was studying for his master's degree in library science, and it's a daily reminder of how libraries are changing. But even though he misses the handsome card catalog of bygone days, as a systems librarian at a library automation firm in Emeryville, Calif., he says the on-line system that replaced it is better.
Nothing in the world of libraries has heralded the Information Age so dramatically as the evolutionary sequence that has been unfolding in libraries across the country over the past decade: First, the venerable card catalog is declared frozen, and new entries are barred; then new acquisitions are catalogued only by computer; and finally, once all card entries for the standing collection have been transferred to electronic format, the space-hogging cabinet is hauled from its time-honored spot in the reading room.
A catalog, of course, is a library's sine qua non. (The ancient Sumerians, in fact, referred to catalogs as ordainers of the universe.
Few in the library profession missed the fusillade of criticism aimed at them three years ago by best-selling author Nicholson Baker in The New Yorker magazine.
Baker's diatribe was echoed a year later by Clifford Stoll, a self-described former computer addict. In his book blasting the hype of the information revolution, Stoll describes the frustrations of popping into the library in search of a few books and watching instead as a computer screen offers a not-so-handy list of 622 possibilities.
Computerized subject searches can't discriminate between Saturn the planet, Saturn the God and Saturn the car, he writes. So researchers learn a logic system to express their needs - library patrons become computer programmers.
Critics of online searching acknowledge some clear advantages: Computers permit library patrons to consult catalogs from the comfort of home, including out-of-town catalogs; they can check which branches have a copy of the book they want and whether it is checked out or on the shelf. Computerized catalogs, they agree, are more wheelchair- accessible, and less vulnerable to damage from mildew, theft and defacement, which have long been frustrating to librarians. In libraries where access to stacks is not permitted, an online catalog can even tell a browser which books are shelved right next to a given book.
But such progress also has introduced new hassles. Often, a patron must learn new software when using an unfamiliar library. Computer systems crash, and there are often long lines at working terminals. The formats of many of the varying catalog designs require the reader to wade through scads of confusing and peripheral information - the call number, for example, often isn't supplied until the third page of a record, in a location on the screen that varies by library.
Baker has other complaints. He writes of a high error rate on the part of computer clerks who keyboard bibliographical information; he bemoans the loss of decades of handwritten corrections and elaborations that professional librarians contributed to the old card catalogs; he laments the loss of ancient cards that document the history of the library itself.
What's more, Baker complains that a computer can't tell when an author's name has changed due to marriage or knighthood, for example. They have a low tolerance for deviation, he says, noting that tiny differences in punctuation or capitalization in a search might cause relevant items to be missed. He gripes that many search systems reject a lot of key words that are just common sense, and that after wafting off in a cyberspace search, it is too easy to lose one's place. Finally, he cites a 1989 study showing that schoolchildren had a lower success rate in finding a book on a computer than in a traditional card catalog.
Jerry Campbell, dean of the library at the University of Southern California, replies that many of Baker's technical criticisms are just plain wrong. Baker's argument is equivalent to saying the printing press was a failure because the folio [the large books common in Elizabethan times] wouldn't work, he says. Online is still in its first generation, and it currently mimics the card catalog. It's getting better all the time.
There is a certain nostalgia attached to the card catalog, particularly among patrons with socio-historical and cultural leanings, says Liz Bishoff, vice president for member services at the Dublin, Ohio-based Online Computer Library Center (OCLC), the nonprofit consortium of thousands of libraries worldwide that creates the massive Union Catalog, which contains 36 million separate titles in nearly 400 languages. Bishoff explains the limits of the old card catalog: In the early 20th century, catalog cards were handwritten or typed. To minimize the workload, many libraries had policies that permitted only, say, two subject headings, or no descriptions from the book's contents page. One benefit of going online, she says, is that we're no longer so constrained. We add more than a million new titles a year, so yes, there is bound to be a percentage of typographical errors, but we are looking at ways to curb them through training.
A skilled librarian, Bishoff adds, can help a researcher by structuring a search with effective key words and cross references that guide the user from his own subject headings to headings that the catalog recognizes. An online librarian can also create new combinations, such as biographies of an individual published only within a certain time frame, which ultimately allows the patron more independence in research. Those annoying variations in where different libraries place the call number, she says, stem from the fact that different branches of a library system may keep several copies of a book, one in the juvenile section, one in reference and one in general circulation, for example, each of which requires a slightly different number.
Robert Zich, director of electronic programs at the Library of Congress, which once boasted the largest card catalog in the world, acknowledges that online systems have shortcomings.
That is why there are the Nicholson Bakers of the world, he says. But most of those problems will be solved. I try not to be a fanatic on either side of the question.
Zich points out that he regularly found errors in the LC's old card catalog back in the 1960s and reported them to his superiors. They were from filer inattention, or typos, different names for, say, the Russian czars, or foreign names that the filer didn't understand. And the errors all came from the same source data and went out to OCLC as well. But with the card catalog, the errors were hidden and discovered only inadvertently, whereas with online errors, the mistakes are easily highlighted. With machine-readable data, we can run it through a spell check.
What favored the old card catalog, Zich adds, was that a user could size up a large collection of drawers and get an instant intuitive sense of how much material was available on a topic. (The U.S. government section, for example, comprised hundreds of drawers, which sent many researchers scurrying away.) Experienced researchers, for example, knew that there were about 1,000 cards in each drawer, or 100 cards to an inch.
In addition, the old card catalog allowed for more physical control, he adds. You could place a little piece of paper to mark your place in the drawer and get a feeling of making progress. In the digital environment, you lose the ability to form a quick impression, and adjustments are needed. A digital watch, for example, is more accurate than a traditional watch, but your brain must process it differently, he says.
The advantage of online, Zich continues, is that the catalog can be instantly and quickly updated with a previously non-existent search term, such as Mudbikes. With the card catalog, by contrast, it took months for librarians working by hand to change European War to World War I after World War II changed history. And with all the opportunities for advanced searches nowadays, we've gone so far beyond the old catalog, there's hardly any comparison.
(Indeed, the Library of Congress Web site offers home users round- the-clock choice of four types of searches, using varying combinations of linked words, browsing by subject, custom-tailored commands and more experimental methods that rank catalog records by relevance and permit the user to E-mail results to a home computer.)
The challenge of online, Zich says, is to find out what it was people liked and found effective about the card catalog and make the accommodation.
The transition to the new catalogs is intimidating to some patrons, particularly the older generation - the kids have no problem with it, says Patrick O'Brien, director of public libraries in Alexandria Va. At first, library patrons got confused when he supplied computers that mixed Windows programs with all-text programs, or mixed a keyboard with the mouse or trackball. So he made operations more uniform.
The next step in online catalog searching appears to lie on the Internet's World Wide Web, he notes. Ironically, the way the information is displayed on a Web site is very much like it was on an old card catalog.