A Fond Farewell to Our Original Search Engine (The Card Catalog)

ABBE's Original Search Engine


This month, the ABBE Regional Library System will be auctioning two pieces of its history: card catalogs which housed the library’s paper catalog from the late 1960s until they were replaced by an online public access catalog in 1993. 

As I prepared to write this blog entry, I held a debate with myself as to whether I needed to define card catalog for my reading public.  Since my reading public at this point is small in number and devoted to library services, I will forgo the explanation and trust that many of you recall using your card catalog in school and at the public library, pre-1990s. 

Before Bing, Google, and Yahoo, card catalogs were the original search engines.  The card catalog originated from manuscript lists used in medieval Islamic libraries.  The type of card catalogs we are auctioning in July, with multiple drawers for bibliographic records, came into widespread use by libraries in the nineteenth century.  After serving library users for close to 200 years, they were all but obsolete by the early 1990s, replaced by computers. 

In most communities, the demise of the card catalogs in schools and public libraries was hardly noticed.  The exception was San Francisco where grumpy New Yorker writer, Nicholson Baker,  launched a protest in 1996 against that library’s plans to migrate from a card catalog to an online catalog.  Baker was unsuccessful in halting the migration, which, he successfully documented, was accompanied by the destruction and loss of many older books. 

Fortunately,  I’m not expecting any dramatic efforts from the public to return us to the card catalog this month. Instead,  I am hoping our auction will net several hundred dollars for the purchase of new books.  And I look forward to seeing a new life for these interesting pieces of furniture, perhaps storing baseball cards or craft supplies.


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