Bring Back the Card Catalog?


In this piece from Inside Higher Ed, Matt Reed argues that “older” technology, while it may not be the best fit in today’s lightning-fast electronic world, still has practical value as something on which to fall back if newer technology crashes. If nothing else, it is a reminder that there are alternatives to zipping off text messages at the speed of light.

This issue is not just about individual pieces of technology being able to perform such-and-such a task at such-and-such a speed, however. It also involves an entire mindset, a certain way of doing things. Reed notes the lack of the human element in today’s world of online communication. Even a technology, such as chat, that requires a flesh-and-blood individual to be on both ends, still lacks the interpersonal aspect of face-to-face communication. (Ironically, as technology becomes more advanced–with videoconferencing, for instance–some of that face-to-face element is restored.)

For older library users, this pre-Internet technology has the value of nostalgia. Even if some of the technology does not necessarily have practical value, it still brings back memories of a world in which things were done differently. (For adult students who have been out of school for a while, the older technology can serve as a lifeline while they re-acclimate themselves to the classroom and library research.) For younger users, it is a learning experience, about not just library use, but also what everyday communication entailed before e-mail and texting.

Regarding the library, what technologies whose use has been discontinued might it be most helpful to bring back, even as simply a hedge against a system failure? Would students use the card catalog if the Internet crashed? Would some of them maybe come to prefer the card catalog over the online one? If nothing else, the sheer size of the physical card catalog might impress upon students the large number and variety of resources a library has available, something that is not immediately obvious when scrolling through a list of databases.

What about other technologies, such as mimeograph machines or typewriters? Any thoughts?


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