Sticking around

Check out what’s new at that flagship of Library 2.0-ness — the plugged-in to plug-ins, blessed by superpatrons, interactively inventive Ann Arbor District Library: card catalogs!

Remember card catalogs? If you do, you’ll remember that uniquely tactile experience: the sliding out, the flipping through, the red-ink-mandated cross referencing, the peering & copying & replacing. You remember the yellowing card musk, the little codes and numbers, the misaligned typing of some librarian in some back office on some rainy afternoon in 1943.

There the cards were, so vulnerable in their long drawers, just waiting in to be smudged by indifferent sticky fingers, scribbled across by any lunatic with an agenda, ripped out by any patron too lazy to copy down call numbers. Card catalog maintenance must have been a heck of a job, Brownie–and good riddance.

Yet cards are where the public touched the library, and maybe that’s why (shaking ourselves out of pre-OPAC reverie) we see the inventive John Blyberg, AADL’s lead developer, reviving catalog cards in a virtual setting. None of the fuss, none of the muss — and now you don’t have to feel bad about writing on the cards, or grabbing them for yourself.

Here’s a look — the AADL OPAC listing for a book on marginalia offers a link to a “Card catalog image” (near the top of the record):

Click the link, and here’s the generated card — bottom perforation and everything. Someone has already scrawled a message on the card: Defacement is subjective. You, or anyone, could add another scrawl by entering text in one of the three position fields and clicking on that very 2.0 button, Add your marginalia!:

For patrons with accounts, cards can be gathered into personal collections which can, in turn, be shared with other patrons:

Blyberg writes in his description of the project that it was “black-ops” — no committee, no proposal, no approval, no testing, no advertising, no muss no fuss — so it remains a bit murky and provisional. Marginalia on a given card seems limited to three entries. A book can have several cards associated with it, and it’s not immediately clear how to look through all those cards. Also, I’m not sure whether or how cards gathered into one’s own collection can be inscribed by others.

If virtual card catalogs are merely proof-of-concept at this point, the concept reminds me a bit of a project that the Alchemical Muser and others were working on at Columbia’s CCNMTL called Plone Stickies. These Stickies initially allowed students to attach short notes to digital objects — but the fuller vision for them, I believe, involves client-side keyword tagging and community sharing.

What do virtual catalog cards and these stickies have in common, besides a general yellowness? They both draw on the desire to physically connect to thought-objects. As such objects recede into a intangible, fungible environment, it’s notable that old means of tracking them — those flopping and curling and awkward apparatuses of identification — persist in collective memory, and expand into markers of collectivity.

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