Totally 80s: Library card catalogs

Welcome the next installment of my year-long look back at the decade that was ruled by big hair and bigger egos. Every other week I’ll be covering pop culture tidbits from the 1980s, sharing memories, choking on the ridiculousness, and maybe offering an insight or two into what made the 1980s so great/bad/silly. Serving as my inspiration are two lists from Buzzfeed, and I’ll include links to the original list items in each post. So throw on your neon windbreaker, lace up your hi-tops, and adjust your Wayfarers, because this DeLorean is taking off! (Ugh. Did I really just type that? Gag me with spoon, seriously.)

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List item #44 from 50 Things only ’80s Kids Can Understand

Using the library catalog to look for a book and the frustration of not finding the index card you were looking for.

By Elizabeth Skene from ypsilanti [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
A world so ancient that it knew not of color.
Show of hands. How many of you have used a card catalog? Large sets of drawers with cards, usually in libraries…? 1…2…5…13… Huh, a good many of you. That’s pretty awesome. Although it’s trendy to think that pen and paper are antiquated, the truth is far from the long-forgotten past. And part of that truth is that library card catalogs haven’t necessarily gone the way of the Great Auk. But they certainly aren’t as prevalent as they once were. (Only a few couple years ago did I step foot inside my first library without a card catalog. And I can’t say I gave it a second thought.) Honestly, more and more these days you see old library card drawers being converted into chic furniture pieces rather than harboring text about books. But as technology reigns supreme, such is the way things evolve.

It looks...like...oh hell, it still looks like a card catalog.
It looks…like…oh hell, it still looks like a card catalog.

Like most young people back in the day, I was introduced to the “omniscient” card catalog in school. You could search through them in one of three ways: by author, by title, or by subject. Simple, yes? Very. It was somewhere around 3rd or 4th grade that library-based class projects were introduced and we had classes held in the library specifically about how to do “research.” I was a voracious reader back then, but not a very continental one. My interests didn’t span the entirety of the Dewey Decimal System, but were rather confined to a couple areas. Err, well…one area in particular: funny books. See, my parents had amassed for us a library at home of kids books – encyclopedic picture books, the Berenstain Bears, short and sweet fiction novels, and enough coloring books to fill a Castle Greyskull playset. Not counted among them were comic strip compilations of Garfield and Charlie Brown, two of my favorites from the Sunday newspaper comic pages. And my school library, thankfully, had a plentiful selection of them. Along with, y’know, plenty of regular (i.e. boring) books.

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Yes, and we still love you for it.

During those library classes, after the world’s most patient librarian had gone on and on about how we could and should find the books that we wanted, we were set loose upon the stacks. And the card catalog was our guide. One of our very first library “assignments” involved going to the card catalog, finding three books, and checking them out. If there were any rules about what we were supposed to check out, I didn’t pay any attention, because I immediately looked up “Garfield.” In the end, my selections contained two Garfield books and one book on drawing animals. At the time, the teacher was too concerned with other students to notice, so I manage to make it off school grounds unscathed with my illicit cache. But at home, my parents, and especially my mother, were disappointed that I hadn’t chosen at least one “educational” title. From then on, I was made to promise that for every three books I checked out (three seemed to be the limit), only one could be an “entertainment” volume. (I eventually learned my way around this “problem” with the help of scholastic book clubs.)

As a general fan of libraries for many years (not that my fandom has quelled any with age), a card catalog was both a savior and a bane. For as much wonderment and usefulness as those cards held, their prevalent gaps in knowledge were often hard to accept. Later in life, the issue mentioned in the Buzzfeed list – not being able to find that one book – became a noticeable problem. This affected more than a few of my term papers and research assignments, though it was a decent excuse for being able to only take a topic so far on paper. (“We didn’t have any good books in our library!” was a common cry.) And there was nothing worse that resigning oneself to the interminable wait involved with inter-library loan. But more often than not, I used both my school and local libraries for pleasurable literary excursions. And not being able to find something for casual reading was more frustrating to me than not being able to find a single, great source for a history paper. (Go figure.)

I mean, this counts as "history," right?
I mean, this counts as “history,” right?

One example of this frustration involved the book R. F. K. Must Die! (1970) by Robert Blair Kaiser. In high school, I was perfectly obsessed for a time with the murders of John F. Kennedy and Robert F. Kennedy. The Kaiser book was mentioned in a TV show on the brothers, and it was one of the few books on the subject (and by “few” I mean what was available in my two libraries) that I had yet to read. So it became a must-find title. Unfortunately, the book wasn’t listed in either card catalog. Phooey. I knew that I might be able to get somewhere by talking an actual librarian, but I was much too shy about asking for something with such a scandalous-sounding title. (“Do you have Emmanuelle?” would have been downright genteel by comparison, as long as no one inquired upon the title further, that is.) But while I didn’t dare approach the judging overseers at the school’s library, I found the courage to ask the nice strangers at the local library about it. Rather than judge me on the spot, they told me that no, they didn’t have the book, but they pointed me in the direction of some other similar titles of which I had not known. It wasn’t the best solution, but it sufficed.

A few years later, I came across the book in my college’s much larger and more liberal library. In terms of technological transitions, I entered that place using a card catalog and exited with new knowledge of swanky and searchable online databases. The frustration of not finding what you wanted electronically was (and still is) just as tangible, only with fewer paper cuts.

2 thoughts on “Totally 80s: Library card catalogs”

    1. It’s a task that takes commitment. You have to get there, find the books you want, check them out (only to realize that you have to sign up for a library card, or that your current one has expired), and then get home. It’s no wonder that e-books are so popular!

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