content, container, or concept? what the catalog card tells us.

When I was in library school at UT Austin circa 2003, I salvaged a stack of crumbling bibliographic how-to posters from a throw-away pile and have been carrying them around ever since. These 18”x 20” beauties were created under the supervision of  an apparently visionary librarian, Ruby Ethel Cundiff, during the late 1930s and early 40s at the George Peabody College for Teachers, for their “course in teaching the use of the library.”

Several are framed in my office, and I’ve watched so many new and seasoned librarians, faculty, and students grow misty-eyed (and saliva-mouthed) over them that it’s high time they were shared more widely. Last week I brought the batch to the Claremont Colleges Digital Library to get the ball rolling for an archival quality collection (many thanks to Gabriel Jaramillo for his generous digitization help). I’ll write a post on the instructional value and visual content (a design-minder’s dream – hand drawn!) of these images after the ideas have percolated, but in the meantime the set is linked at libraries past/present: peabody visual aids in flickr.

mopac, nopac.

What I Want Is FactsAnother impetus for digitizing the series is a talk I’m giving a talk this month at the University of Connecticut Libraries, called “Library as Indicator Species: Evolution, or Extinction?” My project is to explore the cultural, ideological, and social meaning of libraries at a liminal moment in their/our history, in order to address several questions: Are libraries as an institution in decline? Are our representative values persistent? Are we content, container, and/or concept?

I ask these questions because the social and fiscal context of information use continues to transform. Not only have  tectonic shifts in media and access method brought the very idea of the “traditional” library into question among many, our shared professional reality of consolidations, defunding, closures, and layoffs gives the topic true urgency. If these are our earthquakes, their aftershocks are ongoing and widely felt.


From the late 19th to about the turn of the 21st century, libraries in “developed” counties were to a certain extent culturally reliable in the in the sense that they had become integral to the structure of many civic and educational institutions (e.g., municipalities, universities, grade schools, businesses). In the current context, this is no longer certain.

In “developing” countries, where libraries and other types of public learning spaces are often emergent, the discussion of library relevancy takes a completely different tone. In many regions, the establishment of new libraries (be they physical, digital, or both) is a dire need and a mark of privilege, important to nascent educational and social institutions and feasible only in areas of relative stability. I have a cousin who is a public health educator (Lauren Dunnington). She recently spent several years working on a project with her employer, I-Tech, to train medical librarians in Tanzania in fundamentals such as cataloging and classification, building professional community, and basic computing skills. These and other pop-up projects support critical knowledge infrastructure in areas where the type of library culture most North Americans have grown accustomed to (or taken for granted, or already miss) is being built from the ground up.

Which begs the question: what, exactly, does the catalog card (or disappearance thereof) tell us about a developed and digitizing information context, where we are prompted to ask new and difficult questions of and about libraries? The physical catalog has been dismantled for the most part, but mobile, social, and crowdsourced versions have developed in its place. Libraries continue to provide access and space to explore knowledge, virtual and analog, yet as open and closed digital resources grow and institutional resources dwindle, we are left fighting for self-determination.From Cover to Cover

shifting perception

A tension in the social/cultural perception of libraries has developed since the advent of the internet, and is is only intensifying with the rapid popular adoption of e-content. At every academic library I have worked, I have had as many conversations with faculty who lament the decline of the print journal as those who applaud it. Libraries are in constant flux, prompting some users to adapt their access strategies as others simply learn the “new” library as though it was the library that has always been.

How many of the knowledge areas described in the Peabody visuals are actually still relevant? Seventy years out, I find it fascinating that so much of my daily experience as a librarian and researcher is reflected in their content. While many of the tools the posters reference are outmoded, the extent to which their organizational strategies currently apply is a bit mindblowing. More importantly, beyond resources and strategies, I find that they represent the values upon which librarianship unarguably still pivots: information access and intellectual freedom.

memory construction

These are my beliefs about libraries, yet library perception is highly individualized. Values by no means transfer by rite or osmosis. Far more nuanced than buildings and websites, libraries are comprised of the experiences, memories, priorities, and needs of their users. Each of us builds a bibliographic history (or lack thereof) within ourselves, whether it is one of dread and evasion or love and solace. In turn, every library has a history and personality unto itself, forgeMen of Markd by its surrounding community, collection, staff, and symbolic representation. To generalize about the relevance of libraries is as daunting a task as generalizing about the existence and meaning of any other group of individuals or institutions, who may hold characteristics in common but remain very much distinct.

Think about it – who was your first librarian? Can you remember a public or school library you went to before you were, say, ten? Many of us (librarian or no) have visceral memories of buildings, books, experiences, and individuals – I can rattle mine off at length, both positive and negative. These memories are not relegated to the internal or personal – huge amounts of scholarly and artistic output has idealized libraries over the centuries, adding to the collective memory of their meaning and makeup.

If libraries exist in the minds of individuals and the context of communities, we are filtered (and funded) through their respective/collective value systems. Prejudices, perceptions, and nostalgia follows and defines us, as important to challenge as to acknowledge and respect.

last(ing) bastion

The Circle of Classified KnowledgeTo me, libraries might represent the pinnacle of an free intellectual democracy, while my cousin might think of them as a key tool in combating infant mortality. You might see the misappropriation of scarce public resources, whereas your partner might question the need for the institution if information is now free and ubiquitous.

In terms of external perceptions, this means that the radical changes occurring in many of our organizations and practices are perceived with great diversity, from a) unobserved and lost to the ether, b) resented departures from the “life of the mind”, c) welcome adjustments to a digital era, to d) nostalgic spasms of fiscal waste.

While all of these narratives are strong, I believe that the image of the library as a reliable, quiet bastion of bookdom has the most dogged cultural persistence. There is as much support in this perception as there is danger of obsolescence. We represent many things to people, but when we go about the process of changing, some of those representations begin to look and feel unfamiliar.

fixed dynamism

In my observation, library users tend to want and expect a consistent experience, and one that reflects their understanding of the purpose of the institution (free and unbiased access to materials,  information support, public space, warehouse of print journals, etc.). Patrons desire free and easy access to content and assistance, which librarians want nothing more than to provide. However, when our methods and media of provision shift, some are better served by change while others are not.

Paradoxically, libraries are at once fixed and dynamic by nature. As our collections, structures, strategies, and staff evolve constantly to reflect the needs and resources of our communities, they do so based on an unchanging commitment to access and discovery. From the user perspective, I observe that this dynamism has long been obscured by an oversimplified end product: content. Both the principle and process of the library life cycle have been hidden from the public for decades by design, acquisition and description and redefinition occurring under wraps and behind closed doors, poorly communicated and seldomly vetted. In other words, the what of libraries stands in the way of our why and how.

Get it Right

As this why and how is called into question, our changing impact on the collective experience merits careful consideration. Are libraries doing the work to foster future memories, enthusiasts, and advocates? Are we creating irreplaceable and unique experiences, or has the cultural context changed to the degree that these experiences are being had elsewhere? These questions are well worth exploring, and present interesting challenges on the path to relevancy and redefinition.

depth perception

In my opinion, those of us who help define libraries should keep one creative eye on the future and one reflective eye on artifacts like the Peabody posters. Service innovations, new roles and collaborations, contributions to the digital transition, physical and digital facility redesigns, participatory media projects, and process redefinitions such as patron-driven acquisitions are not enough. It is critical to communicate the why, how, and what of new library iterations with equivalent urgency, and connect them to the unique cultural role and principle of libraries past and future.

The more I look at these images, the more clearly I observe that not only have core library values remained true through tectonic shifts, they have shaped the shifts themselves. As we open and adapt practice and process to the user, we should always remember (and relentlessly remind) that, in addition to materials, it is individual experiences and irreplaceable principles that make libraries libraries. This cumulative advocacy will ensure that our organizations are understood, shaped, and perceived as of enduring value to the collective social memory.

From Card Catalog to the Book on the Shelf

14 thoughts on “content, container, or concept? what the catalog card tells us.

Add yours

  1. This is fantastic. I have nothing much critical to say at this point, just compliments. I hope you’ll continue to refine these ideas and that someone will record your talk.

  2. I should say more; the idea that perceptions of libraries are both personally and collectively constructed is particularly resonant with me, and I really like that you show how it applies and open the door to what we can do with it next.

    1. much appreciated on the feedback: i’m still turning the ideas over, but find again and again that memory has much to do with so many things library…

  3. Working in libraries in and around Nashville, I have met many folks who graduated from last library science class offered at Peabody College.

    They nixed their library program years ago, but i just wanted to throw that out there.

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