The Journal Gazette
Saturday, January 11, 2020 1:00 am

Playing the cards right

Digital files long ago replaced card catalogs as a tool for locating library materials, but a couple of graduate students at the University of Virginia recognized the importance of the 4 million cards in the university's Alderman Library and came up with a plan to preserve them.

Inside Higher Ed reports Neal Curtis and Sam Lemley had used the library's catalog as they worked on dissertations on literature. When they learned an upcoming renovation project threatened the files, which were taken out of commission in 1989, they developed a plan to have the card catalog boxed, barcoded and stored during renovation, then preserved in university-owned high-density storage.

The doctoral students said they weren't driven by nostalgia.

“We're not arguing for the superiority of the Alderman card catalog,” Curtis told Inside Higher Ed. “[The card catalog and the digital catalog] are different. They tell us different things.”

“It's a document of the history of the university,” Lemley said. “Who knows what's lurking undiscovered?”

He cited as an example a researcher's quest to determine how library holdings might have changed after the university admitted its first female and African American students. The card catalog, unlike digital files, allows someone to reconstruct the past state of the library collection.

For those driven by nostalgia, the value is in the card catalog cabinets, which are highly valued by collectors.

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