viernes, 3 de febrero de 2017

Library of Congress Card Catalog

There’s a bibliographic gem gathering dust in the basement of the Library of Congress.  

For decades, elegant card catalogs occupied a central spot in the Library of Congress Main Reading Room. Before computerization, they were as central to the research process as a search engine in the present day. The last old card catalog was deemed obsolete the 1980s and pushed down into the basement, where it remains to this day.

The Library of Congress card catalog system dates back to 1898. By 1901 the LC Card Division was producing vast quantities of them for sale to libraries across the country. Every book in the collection had a standardized card listing, relevant metadata, and cross-referenced topics.
There’s something undeniably interesting about perusing the rows of cards, taking in the subtle variations in typography and handwriting on each one. The cards are pleasantly tactile, and the paper has the faint smell of old book. It’s the same physical power that keep some book lovers from ever making the switch from hardcover to ebook, convenience be damned.
Romance aside, digitalization of the card catalog made a lot of sense. “But to some people, it’s an icon,” LC Director of Planning Bob Zich told the Washington Post in 1984. “It’s like a religion.”
Modernization proceeded under the direction of Henriette D. Avram, a former NSA programmer and pioneering female computer scientist. The project began in 1967, but was not complete until the mid-1980s because of the vastness of the Library of Congress collection.

In addition to the backlog of about 20 million existing cards, thousands of new entries came in every day as the digitalization slogged forward.
In the ’80s the LC removed the wooden card cabinets from their spot of honor in the Reading Room and brought in personal computers. The catalog was first brought onto the World Wide Web in 1993. The webpage wasn’t as sexy as the old card system, but it was far more accessible to the American public. Today it is queried millions of times per day. Bizarre side note: The online catalog website actually had operating hours when it was first launched and “closed” at 5 p.m. Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post reporter Margot Williams warned her readers in 1994 “don’t try this [accessing the website] at midnight.”
Despite the advent of the internet, Library of Congress employees fought hard to keep the old cards around as a backup. So down they went into the basement. 

The card catalog is spread across several buildings and hallways on Capitol Hill. The photographs above were taken in the basement of the Library of Congress Madison building. The Law Library reading room is also known to have some of them. 


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