September 2011

The Nation Reviewed

Order is everything

By Robyn Annear
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.
The state library of Victoria’s card catalogue

In a lumber-room off a catacumbal corridor slumbers the State Library of Victoria’s old card catalogue (‘catalogue’ not ‘catalogues’: though it fills many cabinets, its keepers arranged the parts under a majestic singular). To anyone who remembers it as the centrepiece of the library’s main reference hall, it comes as a shock to find it relegated to so ignominious a spot. Yet its bulk and situation remind you too of a computer mainframe that ticks away in a bunker, running the world as we know it.

More than a hundred years in the making, the library’s card catalogue was ‘frozen’ around 1990 once digital conversion was well-advanced. It held its ground for a few more years before being sidelined, then sent downstairs.

Barbara Czech is the library’s cataloguing services manager, and her entire working life has been occupied with the catalogue, through its several iterations. For years she filed catalogue cards exclusively in the L–N drawers and it’s those she still makes a beeline for, pointing out generational markers of cataloguing peculiarities, her own and others’ handiwork.

To extract a single catalogue card, Barbara eases out the long metal rod that skewers a drawer full of cards in place (each has a hole punched near its lower edge). Having examined the card, she replaces it, reinserting the rod with the careful certitude of a sword swallower.

The cabinets housing the catalogue reflect two distinct epochs in cabinet-making. The red cedar originals, dating from the 1880s, could pass as real furniture and feature decorative mouldings and garrulous drawers, with wooden knobs for handles. Cabinets added from the mid twentieth century are themselves straight out of a catalogue – blond hardwood on alloy frames – and could not be other than library fixtures.

Before card catalogues, lists of the library’s holdings – alphabetical, by title – were printed in book form every few years. Even with intermittent pages left blank for handwritten additions between printings, these were “cumbersome, straggling and difficult to run the eye over” – far from perfect finding-aids. Early patrons of the Melbourne Public Library (precursor to the State Library of Victoria), besides grumbling over a shortage of seats and lavatories, in 1859 expressed “much discontent” at “the trouble experienced in finding certain books”.

Employed by the library for a decade until his death in 1881, the writer Marcus Clarke bore responsibility for a catalogue later derided as “worse than badly kept” – proof that bohemianism and librarianism don’t mix. In 1884 the Argus complained that, without an effective catalogue, the contents of the Melbourne Public Library were not “get-at-able”: “If some of them remain hidden to the reader because of the difficulty of unearthing them, much of the value of the institution is lost.” The writer cited as an exemplar the Guildhall Library in London where “any book in the library can be found in a few moments” thanks to a new innovation: the card catalogue.

Within three years, Melbourne’s library had its own card catalogue. Each cabinet held 22,500 cards in six double-width drawers. Now, when a new volume was added to the library’s collection, its catalogue record could be filed – and found – in precisely correct order. And order, in a library, is everything.

After Melbourne’s catalogue was showcased at the Intercolonial Library Conference of 1896, other Australian libraries followed its lead. In Hobart, the librarian designed “a neat and novel little chest of Huon pine drawers” and catalogued the entire Tasmanian Public Library single-handed. His Adelaide counterpart found time to do likewise by the “peculiar economy” of buying no books for two years.

Starting in 1986, “retrospective conversion” saw the contents of every card in the State Library of Victoria’s catalogue – hundreds of thousands of them – keyed into a computer database. Early catalogue cards were handwritten, in scripts ranging from copperplate to termite scrawl. Even typewritten cards often had scribbled annotations squeezed into the margins or spilling onto the verso, which posed no small challenge to data-entry operatives, some of them contractors in the Philippines. Moreover, precious marginalia was often lost when, to save keystrokes and money, a card’s agglomerated text was substituted by a similar but abbreviated record, selected from an existing database.

It was in the early 1990s that the American writer Nicholson Baker exposed the widespread destruction by libraries of printed materials – historic newspapers, card catalogues – in favour of digital doppelgängers. Literally destruction: Baker witnessed catalogue cards ceremonially blasted by shotgun, tied to helium balloons, set alight, and consigned en masse to dumpsters. But what outraged Baker most was the indecent haste with which libraries – and worse, librarians – were trashing their life’s work in favour of flashy, and imperfect, new toys.

At odds with some other leading Australian libraries, the State Library of Victoria’s card catalogue survived the reflex of new-broomism. Staff still regularly consult the sage in the basement to verify details that failed to make the conversion. And visitors during July’s Melbourne Open House weekend voted the card catalogue the highlight of their library tour.

Given its history and ongoing authority, the wonder is that the old catalogue is not itself catalogued and protected. The chairs in the domed reading room are heritage-listed; a china bowl that belonged to the library’s founder, Sir Redmond Barry, is valued as a treasure. So why not the card catalogue: the ultimate institutional memory?

Robyn Annear

Robyn Annear is a writer and historian based in Castlemaine, Victoria. Her books include A City Lost and Found: Whelan the Wrecker’s Melbourne and Fly a Rebel Flag: The Eureka Stockade.

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