ASSOCIATES (2020, November, v. 27, no. 2)


Is It “PC” to Love a Card Catalog?

Allison Sloan

As a teenager the concept of a card catalog fascinated me. The idea of being able to flip through drawers and drawers of cards to find not only the title, but a card with the author, or a card with the subject, all nicely linked and full of information. In college, looking to earn some spending money, I jumped at the chance to work at the library and a job updating and maintaining the card catalog! When a book was added to the collection, or discarded, it meant inserting or pulling multiple cards. It was steady work and though it might seem routine or boring to some people, I always marveled at the simplicity and dependability of the system.

Flash forward to my job at the Reading PL and imagine my personal moment of sorrow in the mid-1990’s when our library decided to remove the lovely oak cabinetry that housed our card catalog, and replace it with a computer and an online catalog! Yet, along with that came the excitement of inputting digital catalog records, updating records, creating new records and learning new ways the information is searchable. Whoever heard of “keyword”? And then, even better, being able to search other library’s catalogs, regional, statewide, national and international catalogs!

Back in college days, I didn’t think of the politics of anything other than sit-ins and protests for the war in Vietnam (yes, that is how old I am). I didn’t know anything about Melvil Dewey, not even his first name. But I knew and loved the Dewey Decimal System. It didn’t occur to me what kind of mind it took to design subjects, headings, categories and call numbers to the nth decimal point.

Working in a public library for the past 30 years, bits and pieces about Dewey’s work pop up, his vision for librarianship and his failings. Here’s a quick overview revealed with some simple research (my information is attributed mainly to Wikipedia, ALA and other online sources). Dewey developed the cataloging system while in college in the 1870’s, and copyrighted it in 1876. It was Ezra Abbot who created the piece of furniture with card catalog drawers.

Also in 1876 Dewey was a co-founder of the American Library Association. In 1877, he founded the publication Library Journal. One hundred thirty-three years later, I would be honored by that distinguished publication as the Paraprofessional/Paralibrarian of the Year (2010). One hundred eighteen years later, the New York State Library Assistant Association (NYSLAA) would establish a Certification for Library Assistants, based on work by the Utah Library Association.

In 1887 Dewey established the “School of Library Economy” to educate librarians. He fought to accept women in the school, and the first class consisted of three men and 17 women. That all sounds wonderful, until you learn that there was a rumor he required women’s bust sizes on the application. Though that was not true, the reality is that only photographs of the women were required, because, he explained, he didn’t want a woman who looked like “a pumpkin.” Yet we have Melvil Dewey to thank for opening the doors to a now predominantly female professional.

Now we return to the present, and the current political situation in the US and around the world. Consider the unrest, protest and review of history’s leaders, many who face disgrace today in light of beliefs and actions that are no longer tolerated in 21st century society. Melvil Dewey is among them. Recognized for his invention and passionate work to expand libraries and librarianship, he is condemned for his many failings as a man, a teacher and a citizen. His definitive biography reveals him to have been an early member of what we call the “Me Too” movement with a history of sexual harassment, anti-Semitism and racism.

In 1952, ALA established the Melvil Dewey Medal offering a bronze medal and a $2000 stipend to honored librarians. At the 2019 ALA conference, the Council voted to remove Dewey’s name. At the 2020 ALA conference the award was renamed the ALA Medal of Excellence. They toppled the statue, so to speak.

Does this mean I don’t still love the precision and dependability of the Dewey Decimal System? Does this mean I don’t still miss the abounding oak card catalogs, gleaming from years of finger tips smoothing oils into the wooden drawers and brass drawer pulls? And does this mean we don’t love the online card catalog and the generous offerings of OCLC?

These are the questions we must answer for ourselves. As we look back to the beginnings of our relationship with libraries and catalogs. As we ask ourselves how we participated in protests and politics. As we watch the new replace the old, and bemoan while appreciating change.