After extended deliberation and over twenty years after its official retirement, the University of Michigan Library decided recently to divest itself of the old card catalog — 108 cases containing over 12 million cards. The story was fairly widely covered, with a piece in the official University Record and another in the local digital newspaper, annarbor.com. The latter even has a nice picture of both me and a small chunk of the catalog.
Many friends and acquaintances have weighed in on the subject, as one might imagine. The PR apparatus at the University, unsurprisingly, wanted to pitch the removal of the catalog as a symbol of the growth of the digital library, with all of the forward-looking and progressive connotations that such a view might support. Most people, librarians and others, were surprised that we still had the card catalog. This included senior faculty who often opine as to how much they love browsing in the stacks but who haven’t actually been there for a decade or two. Younger people didn’t even know what it was. (The current graduating class, it is worth noting, were mostly not born when we retired the catalog.) Most of the library staff were happy to see the thing go. My own view turns out to be at the sentimental end. Forty-some years ago, card catalogs gave me a window on the world of scholarship that left me (and still leaves me) in awe. Of course we have the same information on line, and one is still awed by the resources of libraries great and small. But just as I will always remember Ebbets Field as the location of the first baseball game that I saw in person, the Queen Mary as my introduction to transatlantic travel, and the 6th edition of Samuleson’s introduction to Economics as, well, my introduction to economics, I’ll always remember the card catalog as the rich, powerful and brilliant piece of scholarship that it was, and as a place that I visited in eager anticipation of learning something new. I don’t think that I was ever disappointed.
And then came the plagues.
The week before the catalog was moved, I went down to the basement of the library to find my own cards and those of members of my family, with the intention of removing them and keeping them, why I don’t know. And I’ll never find out. I worked my way through the alphabet, to a box whose last drawer ended with “Cooper.” I figured that “Courant” couldn’t be very far away, but the next case started with “Da-” Where were the Courant cards? It turned out that some years ago there had been a water leak, undiscovered for weeks, that had led to water damage and subsequent mildew and mold. The cards had been destroyed at that time.
On March 8, the cases were trucked to Property Disposition. About half way through the exercise a case hit a sprinkler head, creating a torrent of rusty water, water that looked like blood and smelled worse, damaging hundreds of books (all of which were saved by our overwhelmingly competent preservation staff) and making quite a mess.
With Passover coming, I’m on the lookout for frogs.