Retrocon Notes, or, The digital computer vs. 173 years worth of irascible librarianship, round one. Ding!

card1You may or may not already know that the Mercantile Library has been awarded a Library Services & Technologies Act Grant for about $101,000, for the purpose of putting our dusty, dearly beloved card catalog online.  The cards will be sent off to a company in Utah where they will be scanned and matched with equivalent MARC records.  The MARC records will be massaged, assigned additional numbers by OCLC (the Online Computer Library Center), formerly the Ohio College Library Center, in Columbus, OH–that’s right, folks, the epicenter of electronic librarianship is right here in Ohio.  In preparing to send the cards off for conversion (I’d like to ask that readers of this web log pray for these irreplacable cards, as they make their Christmas journey), a lot of interesting stuff comes to mind:  The often arbitrary nature of classification, the myriad ways twenty different librarians might choose to indicate that an item is located in the Cincinnati Case.  Computers, it is true, are perfectly suited for the task of organizing and maintaining huge piles of data.  But how do they fare against huge piles of data scrawled and arbitrarily assigned, de-accessed, and finger-walked by one-hundred and seventy three years worth of irascible librarians?  As is often the case with technology, this is a trade-off–a strategically beneficial one, but a trade nonetheless.  Our new records will not be the original records…  gone will be the apocryphal card2marginalia.  What, for example, possessed the librarian to note on this, and many other cards, “Destroyed”, like an angst-ridden Heavy Metal teen?  Most of the information, taken purely objectively (assuming anyone can do such a thing), is probably useless.  Some could be useful to some sub-sub-librarian writing a very specific history of a membership library, and some of it might not be what you call data, per se, but rather tactile and aesthetic information, the “unique terroir”, provenance and collective experience, the life and death of books in the hands of our membership.  Then there are actual questions raised: the names of cases and collections long disbursed and forgotten, the mysterious note, appearing on many cards: “M115”, which, as far as I can tell is some sort of euphemism for “fugetaboutit”.  It’s difficult to say what could be of use, so hopefully we’ll find a sub-basement somewhere to keep the original records.  Meanwhile, we look forward, thanks to the fine folks at Back Stage Library Works, and especially the hard-working and very smart librarians at the University of Cincinnati Libraries, to the enhanced searchability and visibility of placing our catalog online, as part of the University of Cincinnati Online Library Catalog.  Seriously, where is that 1st Edition case?  -Ed Scripsi

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Published in: on November 25, 2008 at 6:39 pm  Comments (3)  
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  1. I’ll add the safety of the cards to my list of prayers. Don’t you think we should also pray for the safety of the nearest Merc librarian when members charge through the doors with fire in their eyes when the discover that the old cases have been spirited away in the dead of night to make way for the CPUs that have replaced them?

  2. Congratulations on the grant!
    But I, too, hope you are able to keep the original records. Besides their aesthetic and possible historic significance, they might still serve a utilitarian purpose. When technology fails (and it does fail, from time to time), it seems it would be nice to have those cards as a back-up system! Now the question is, who is the brave librarian who will travel to the dark sub-basement, candle stick in hand in the midst of a black-out, thunder reverberating through the halls, to search for that card on “History of the Super Natural”?

  3. Man, that’s gold, Jerry, GOLD! Can I borrow that for a short story I’m trying to write called “The Care and Feeding of Magical Libraries”?


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