By Gwen Rockwood, newspaper columnist and mama of 3
There’s one piece of furniture I adore and will probably never own. Every time I spot one in the background of a television show, my heart swells and I get a rush of nostalgia.
What is this wooden wonder my heart longs for? A card catalog.
It’s a weird piece of furniture to have a crush on, but it makes sense if you grew up as a shy book nerd like I did. For kids who often feel overwhelmed by the loud hustle and bustle of packed classrooms and hallways, the library was our safe haven. It was the one place where it didn’t matter if you were too shy to talk because talking was literally against the rules anyway.
The library also offered a calm, organized place to escape to when you needed to slow down and hear yourself think. And it was filled with books – also known as a shy kid’s best friends. Books never needed us to be cool, good looking, or popular. They simply invited us to sit, turn pages, and lose ourselves in great stories.
When I was in sixth grade, each class spent at least one hour a week visiting the school library. The librarian looked like she’d stepped right out of a stereotypical description of what a librarian would look like – older, cardigan, powdery white skin, and black-rimmed glasses suspended by a thin gold chain. Her dark hair was pulled back so tightly into a bun that it put a persistent frown on her face. But I liked her, mostly because she was intimidating enough to keep a sea of rowdy sixth graders from disrupting the library’s peace. And because she loved the card catalog as much as I did.
She had each class line up single file at her desk, with the line snaking around the perimeter of the school library. The person at the front of the line stood next to the librarian’s desk, where she ruled with an intense glare and the sternest “shhh” you’ve ever heard. She’d show the first kid in line a typed card from the card catalog and tell him or her to name the type of card it was. There were only three main options – author card, title card, or subject card – determined by how the information was printed on the card.
If the student answered correctly, they received a subtle nod from the librarian and were dismissed to the back of the line to advance to the next round. The kids who got the answer wrong had to go sit down and endure their shame. The game continued until only one library nerd was left standing. Then the librarian would open her bottom desk drawer and pull out a bag of M&Ms along with a silver spoon. She’d dip the spoon into the bag to retrieve exactly one M&M and then deposit it into the open palm of the winner.
Was it worth standing in line for an hour to win one M&M? Of course not. I did it for the love of the card catalog because my nerdiness runs deep.
Sadly, we don’t see many card catalogs these days. In 2015, an article in Smithsonian Magazine declared that “the card catalog is officially dead,” which I still find tragic. Technically speaking, the concept of the card catalog is alive and well but, like almost everything else, it has gone digital. Now there’s a computerized global catalog of library collections called WorldCat which can search for materials kept at your nearest library.
It’s vast, fast and takes up less space than its wooden predecessors. But let’s face it. It’ll never have the charm of those cabinets full of small wooden drawers dotted with pull knobs and tiny tagged windows. They’ll live on in the memories of those of us who have always loved a library.