Tuesday, July 29, 2008

The Card Catalog

Walter Benjamin, "One Way Street":

The card index marks the conquest of three-dimensional writing, and so presents an astonishing counterpoint to the three-dimensionality of script in its original form as rune or knot notation. (And today the book is already, as the present mode of scholarly production demonstrates, an outdated mediation between two different filing systems. For everything that matters is to be found in the card box of the researcher who wrote it, and the scholar studying it assimilates it into his own card index.
Kevin Kelly, "One Dead Media":
Edge-notched cards were invented in 1896. These are index cards with holes on their edges, which can be selectively slotted to indicate traits or categories, or in our language today, to act as a field. Before the advent of computers were one of the few ways you could sort large databases for more than one term at once. In computer science terms, you could do a "logical OR" operation. This ability of the system to sort and link prompted Douglas Engelbart in 1962 to suggest these cards could impliement part of the Memex vision of hypertext.

The "unit records" here, unlike those in the Memex example, are generally scraps of typed or handwritten text on IBM-card sized edge-notchable cards. These represent little "kernels" of data, thought, fact, consideration concepts, ideas, worries, etc., that are relevant to a given problem... Each such specific problem area has its notecards kept in a separate deck, and for each such deck there is a master card with descriptors associated with individual holes about the periphery of the card. There is a field of holes reserved for notch coding the serial number of a reference from which the note on a card may have been taken, or the serial number corresponding to an individual from whom the information came directly (including a code for myself, for self-generated thoughts).

In the US these cards were sold as McBee Keysort Cards and InDecks Information Retrieval cards. McBee cards were often used in libraries to keep track of books in interlibrary loan programs.
Two examples of card catalog art, via somebody. (I know I didn't trip on these two all on my own, but NetNewsWire isn't talking.)

Post Card Swap


Abstracts of Nicholson Baker's classics "The Author vs. The Library" and "Discards":
ANNALS OF SCHOLARSHIP about the scrapping of library card catalogues and replacing them with computerized systems. Tells how various libraries, including the New York Public Library, Harvard, and others, have discarded their index card files and replaced them with inferior on-line systems. Tells about the Online Computer Library Center, which computerizes card catalogues. On-line catalogues are wonderful things in principle. Without on-line catalogues and the circulation and acquisition modules of software with which on-line catalogues are linked, libraries would simply not have been able to process all the books and journals that were arriving on their loading docks. Tells about the history of card catalogues, beginning in 1791 with the French Revolution, when the government asked for names of books confiscated and stated that information should be written on playing cards and returned to the central government. In January of 1901, the Library of Congress began printing its catalogue cards in quantity and selling them in sets to any library that wanted them. Writer visits OCLC. The cost of computer technology now consumes nearly 30 per cent of the typical American library's budget, according to one estimate, forcing it to cut book purchases, reference staff, and skilled cataloguers. The technology that libraries are actually buying turns out to remedial software meant to correct the hash that earlier technologies have made of information once safely stored on paper. Tells how some librarians are saving their paper card catalogues and about artist Tom Johnson, who is saving Harvard's discarded Widener library cards. Maybe the riskiest, most thought-provoking piece of conceptual art that anyone could create out of these found materials is the original card catalogue, enclosed in its own cabinets, sitting undisturbed somewhere within the library it once described.
P.S.: I figured out where the card catalog art came from -- this NYT/Paper Cuts post by Gregory Cowles on the greatness and (mostly) shortcomings of the Dewey Decimal system. The first comment, extolling the Library of Congress system, is mine.

1 comment:

welvie_kretz said...

you never knew how you helped me in my work! tnx!!!