I found a wonderful little collection of letters from a cataloger to library school students. They address common complaints and perceptions of cataloging as being monotonous and mechanical work, and the author tries to persuade her readers that cataloging is, in fact, a Great Adventure:

A Great Adventure: Twelve Letters to a Library School Student, by Esther Anne Smith, Head of the Catalog Department, University of Michigan Library. Ann Arbor: George Wahr, Publisher, 1930.

All of the letters are fun to read, but I think this is my favorite:

A Great Adventure, IX

There are catalogers who accept the dictum that cataloging is ‘mechnical’ work, and who act accordingly, and let me assure you, they are mighty poor catalogers.

It sometimes seems to me that I can almost hear the books chuckling to themselves when they get into the hands of such a cataloger (so-called). The tricky little ways in which they fool her. The perfectly absurd things that they ‘get away with’! I don’t wonder they laugh. And the cards–how they can tangle themselves into a maze wholly unintelligible to anyone! Books and cards can be perfect imps in the hands of the mechanical cataloger.

No sir! You’ve got to be on the alert every instant if you do not wish to be caught. That mind of yours must work, quickly, thoroughly, accurately, all the time, approaching every book with the suspicion that it is not what is seems. And your imagination cannot play hookey for even the fraction of a second. Oh, the trouble that is caused, both to the public and to the library, by the unimaginative cataloger, who cannot picture her cards in the catalog, cannot foresee what will happen if she does–or does not do–certain things! You must learn to follow with your thought, at least subconsciously, every smallest act, or failure to act, throughout your day’s work. And don’t stop until you can actually see some one using the resultant card, in the catalog. If you can do this, you will never be bored, and best of all, your public and your fellow-workers will rise up and call you blessed.


This passage is taken from Jesse Shera’s essay “The Book Catalog and the Scholar–A Reexamination of an Old Partnership.” It was a paper delivered at the RTSD/RSD Book Catalogs Interdivisional Committee Program at ALA, July 10, 1961.

For centuries, the scholar and the codex have been constant companions, and they have formed a kind of silent partnership in the search for truth. The bibliography in book form was, therefore, a simple and logical extension of this union to which the efficiency of the card catalog seemed to do violence. Such great bibliographic monuments as the catalogs of the British Museum, the Bibliotheque Nationale, the Surgeon General’s Library, the Astor Library and the Gesamt Katalog, to name but a few, commanded, and for that matter still command, a respect that one does not readily grant even to such a significant undertaking as the National Union Catalog at the Library of Congress.

There are probably a variety of reasons for this emotional reaction, certainly not the least of which is the identity that these catalogs have achieved through their association with their compilors. This is no mere catalog–who touches this touches a man. By contrast, a card catalog represents a continuing operation to which, though the years, many hands have contributed yet upon which no one has left the indelible mark of his own personality. Moreover, the card file has always been the symbol of impersonality, identified largely with personnel records of one kind or another, in which no one wants to be a mere cross-indexed annotation. That this is an irrational emotional reaction does not belie its potency. Perhaps it derives from the very virtue of the card catalog–its flexibility, and hence its impermanence. An entry in a book is there forever, but a card can be withdrawn from a catalog and departing leaves behind it not even a foot-print on the sands of time….

Shera concludes…

This revival of interest in the book catalog does not imply disillusion with the card form. Rather, it signifies a reexamination of the total problem of bibliographic organization, and a recognition that there is no universal, no one best, instrument that will meet all the needs of the scholar. At the same time that some librarians have been reconsidering the book catalog, others have been investigating a variety of mechanical and electronic devices for informational retrieval. Janus-like, the scholar is looking back to the past as well as forward to the future for more effective means for the organization of his materials. The book catalog, the card catalog, and the electronic mechanism–each has its own unique characteristics that endow it with its peculiar utility for certain types of library and research situations. This is in the bes traditions of librarianship, a reaffirmation of the need for an unceasing search for improvement, whether that search leads to a reassessment of the past or to areas that are as yet unexplored.