Review of The Card Catalog: Books, Cards, and Literary Treasures

The Card Catalog: Books, Cards, and Literary Treasures. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2017. Find on Goodreads.

The Card Catalog: Books, Cards, and Literary Treasures is a well-written introduction to the basic concepts of library cataloging and bibliographic control. The author does a masterful job of condensing the history of cataloging from ancient times to the present for general readers. But who is the author? The book’s cover and title page prominently display “The Library of Congress” in the author position above “Foreword by Carla Hayden.” Likewise, the copyright page and Cataloging-in-Publication data give authorship credit to The Library of Congress. Once we dig deeper and read the introduction signed by Peter Devereaux, we gather that he must be the author. Our suspicions are confirmed, finally, by Devereaux’s acknowledgments at the end of the book. I find this treatment of the book’s actual author to be questionable. I do realize he must have written the book as part of his job duties at the Library of Congress, but I still feel that he deserves more prominent billing.

The concept behind this book is similar to an exhibition catalog from a library or art museum. Explanatory text on the history and function of card catalogs is interspersed with lavish illustrations, in this case mostly book covers accompanied by sometimes corresponding catalog cards. I say sometimes because the cards selected do not always match the book pictured next to them. This is acceptable but it would have been better if the author pointed this out in every case, not just some cases. Consistency is, after all, a cornerstone of library cataloging.

Some of the cards depicted seem to be copyright file cards or authority file cards, neither of which are explained in the text. In fact, most of the cards are not described at all even though the book’s design would have allowed for it. What does the ink stamp “Condemned” on the card for Jack London’s Call of the Wild (shown on page 133) mean? We are left to wonder. The card on page 191—which is a See reference card—refers to Carson McCullers with a male pronoun but is corrected in pencil to a female pronoun. This is an intriguing detail in the history of the card catalog, especially given the importance of her sexuality to McCullers’ biography and work. Many of the cards depicted leave the reader wanting to know more. In a rare case of the author providing more detail in a caption about a Carol M. Highsmith photograph on page 181, the photograph itself is actually missing from the book. This is an unfortunate oversight that hopefully will be corrected in later printings.

Lastly, a pet peeve. There are quotations throughout the book that are uncited. We can only assume that they may be found in one of the ten books listed in the short bibliography and then we’ll have to dig for them.

Overall, I enjoyed reading The Card Catalog: Books, Cards, and Literary Treasures and even had difficulty putting it down a few times. I wish the book were manufactured in the United States given that it is a federally-sanctioned publication but I understand the economics faced by Chronicle Books in the modern, global publishing environment. Book lovers, library lovers, and lovers of organization will enjoy this book.

The Essence of Aldo Leopold’s Land Ethic

A few days ago, I finished reading Aldo Leopold’s groundbreaking, award-winning A Sand County Almanac, first published in 1949. Leopold is widely considered to be the father of the modern conservation movement. For anyone with a short attention span, the book can be summarized by the following quotation from the foreword:

We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.

On this Earth Day, take a walk in nature, even your own back yard, and observe the teeming ecosystem around you. It is the community to which you belong.

“What Shall I Do with All My Books?”

Volumes of The New Yorker in the stacks of Thompson Library.

Several weeks ago, while walking through the stacks of Ohio State University’s Thompson Library, I passed by the bound issues of The New Yorker. I’d seen and even used them before but this particular day they caught my eye and my mind. I whimsically thought, What if my full-time job were to do nothing but sit and read the entire run of The New Yorker? There are almost 5,000 issues. Assuming I could read two per day (a generous estimate), ten issues each week (very generous), I wouldn’t be finished for nearly a decade. Pondering all the things I’ll never read made me melancholy, but I moved on.

Little did I know that Sir Winston Churchill covered this very feeling in his short book Painting as a Pastime (New York: Whittlesey House, 1950). I read this book yesterday and was delighted to find the following passage near the beginning:

The most common form of diversion is reading. In that vast and varied field millions find their mental comfort. Nothing makes a man more reverent than a library. “A few books,” which was Lord Morley’s definition of anything under five thousand, may give a sense of comfort and even of complacency. But a day in a library, even of modest dimensions, quickly dispels these illusory sensations. As you browse about, taking down book after book from the shelves and contemplating the vast, infinitely varied store of knowledge and wisdom which the human race has accumulated and preserved, pride, even in its most innocent forms, is chased from the heart by feelings of awe not untinged with sadness. As one surveys the mighty array of sages, saints, historians, scientists, poets and philosophers whose treasures one will never be able to admire—still less enjoy—the brief tenure of our existence here dominates mind and spirit.

Think of all the wonderful tales that have been told, and well told, which you will never know. Think of all the searching inquiries into matters of great consequence which you will never pursue. Think of all the delighting or disturbing ideas that you will never share. Think of the mighty labours which have been accomplished for your service, but of which you will never reap the harvest. But from this melancholy there also comes a calm. The bitter sweets of a pious despair melt into an agreeable sense of compulsory resignation from which we turn with renewed zest to the lighter vanities of life.

“What shall I do with all my books?” was the question; and the answer, “Read them,” sobered the questioner. But if you cannot read them, at any rate handle them and, as it were, fondle them. Peer into them. Let them fall open where they will. Read on from the first sentence that arrests the eye. Then turn to another. Make a voyage of discovery, taking soundings of uncharted seas. Set them back on their shelves with your own hands. Arrange them on your own plan, so that if you do not know what is in them, you at least know where they are. If they cannot be your friends, let them at any rate be your acquaintances. If they cannot enter the circle of your life, do not deny them at least a nod of recognition.

Sir Winston, thank you for the advice. I will take comfort in having had the pleasure of the acquaintance of tens of thousands of books (and magazines), a few of which I even got to read, and many more to come.