When our lit­er­ary lives were in the cards

This lav­ishly il­lus­trated tome waxes nos­tal­gic about the now-ob­so­lete cat­a­logues that li­brary vis­i­tors used to find books

The Washington Post Sunday - - BOOK WORLD - BY MICHAEL LINDGREN book­world@wash­post.com Michael Lindgren is reg­u­lar con­trib­u­tor to The Wash­ing­ton Post.

This book about card cat­a­logues, writ­ten and pub­lished in co­op­er­a­tion with the Li­brary of Congress, is beau­ti­fully pro­duced, in­tel­li­gently writ­ten and lav­ishly il­lus­trated. It also sent me into a week-long de­pres­sion. If you are a book lover of a cer­tain age, it might do the same to you.

“The Card Cat­a­log” is many things: a lu­cid over­view of the his­tory of bib­li­o­graphic prac­tices, a paean to the Li­brary of Congress, a me­mento of the cher­ished card cat­a­logues of yore and an il­lus­trated col­lec­tion of book­ish trivia. The text pro­vides a con­cise his­tory of lit­er­ary com­pendi­ums from the Pi­nakes of the fa­bled Li­brary of Alexan­dria to the ad­vent of com­put­er­ized book in­ven­tory data­bases, which be­gan to ap­pear as early as 1976. The il­lus­tra­tions are amaz­ing: lus­cious re­pro­duc­tions of dozens of cards, lists, cov­ers, ti­tle pages and other im­ages guar­an­teed to bring a wist­ful gleam to the book nerd’s eye.

For some­one who grew up in and around li­braries, it is also a poignant re­minder of a van­ished world.

Now, wax­ing nos­tal­gic about card cat­a­logues or be­ing an ad­vo­cate for the im­por­tance of li­braries is a mug’s game. You can prac­ti­cally feel peo­ple glanc­ing up from their iPhones to smile tol­er­antly at your ec­cen­tric­ity. My re­sponse to this, af­ter an ini­tial burst of pro­fan­ity, is to ex­plain (again) why li­braries are es­sen­tial to nar­row­ing the in­equal­ity gap, and why the In­ter­net is not an ad­e­quate sub­sti­tute for books or li­braries.

“The Card Cat­a­log” is a heady antidote to the technophilia threat­en­ing our cul­ture. The book is es­pe­cially il­lu­mi­nat­ing on the pow­er­ful, if over­looked, prop­er­ties of the hum­ble cat­a­logue card, some 79 mil­lion of which were printed an­nu­ally at the sys­tem’s peak in 1969. Each one is a per­fect meld­ing of de­sign and util­ity, a marvel of in­for­ma­tional com­pres­sion and pre­ci­sion. In his in­tro­duc­tion, Peter Dev­ereaux calls rightly calls the cat­a­logue “one of the most ver­sa­tile and durable tech­nolo­gies in his­tory,” one that lasted al­most a cen­tury, un­til 1980, when the Li­brary switched com­pletely to a com­put­er­ized sys­tem.

Al­though some con­tem­po­rary read­ers might con­sider this book out­ra­geously quaint, the card cat­a­logue’s con­cep­tual struc­ture was the un­der­pin­ning of the In­ter­net; the idea of some­thing be­ing “tagged” by cat­e­gory owes its ex­is­tence as an or­ga­niz­ing prin­ci­ple to the sub­ject head­ings de­lin­eated by the Li­brary of Congress. A na­tional card cat­a­logue sys­tem was the orig­i­nal “search en­gine” — one that needed no elec­tric­ity, no ser­vice providers or broad­band or smart­phones, and that was truly demo­cratic.

The slow ob­so­les­cence of this mar­velous in­for­ma­tional struc­ture lends a pal­pa­ble sense of loss to the book’s nar­ra­tive. Dev­ereaux quotes his­to­rian Bar­bara Tuch­man as re­fer­ring to the card cat­a­logue as “a com­pan­ion all my work­ing life.” As it hap­pens, Tuch­man voiced this soul­ful plaint in a 1985 talk at the New York Pub­lic Li­brary, in which she went on to ex­press con­sid­er­able skep­ti­cism about the vaunted ca­pa­bil­i­ties of dig­i­tal search. “The eas­ier the process is made,” Tuch­man warned, “and the less ac­tive in­di­vid­ual thought is em­ployed by the re­searcher, the less his brain will be ex­er­cised. My hunch,” she con­tin­ued, “is that the searcher . . . will get more than he wants to know and much that he can­not use.”

Tech­nol­ogy aside, the book also sum­mons the specter of a by­gone Amer­i­can faith in the abil­ity of in­sti­tu­tions of gov­ern­ment to work for a com­mon good. The idea of the Li­brary of Congress im­ple­ment­ing a na­tion­ally stan­dard­ized sys­tem to clas­sify and track the na­tion’s col­lec­tive pub­li­ca­tion his­tory is now as surely a part of the past as steam engines or top hats. Looked at this way, the card cat­a­logue stands with other great 20th-cen­tury works of civic ar­chi­tec­ture as tes­ta­ment to the po­ten­tial of what a so­ci­ety — and a gov­ern­ment — can achieve, an es­pe­cially dis­cour­ag­ing re­minder in our current era of re­duced ex­pec­ta­tions.

For some read­ers, the sense of per­sonal nos­tal­gia en­gen­dered by this book is pierc­ing. When I think of the books that shaped me — the hap­haz­ardly cho­sen vol­umes that formed the bedrock of my post­col­le­giate ed­u­ca­tion — I think of the works of Kael and An­gell, of James and Did­ion and Updike and Roth and Ex­ley, in their Bos­ton Pub­lic Li­brary plas­tic cas­ings, piled high on a rick­ety desk in some shabby hovel of my young adult­hood. I owe my ex­is­tence as a reader, as a thinker, as a writer, as a per­son to li­braries. This book re­minds me of that, even as it re­minds me of how much has been lost.

PHO­TOS BY THE LI­BRARY OF CONGRESS VIA CHRON­I­CLE BOOKS

A li­brary card for “The Catcher in the Rye,” by J.D. Salinger. For peo­ple who grew up in and around li­braries, “The Card Cat­a­log” is a poignant re­minder of a van­ished world.

THE CARD CAT­A­LOG Books, Cards, and Lit­er­ary Trea­sures By Li­brary of Congress Chron­i­cle. 224 pp. $35

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