Shelf List by
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Prompted By My First Computer

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Shelf List

I was a librarian for almost 40 years,  most of those spent working in school libraries with several summers in a small public library as well.    (See The Diary of a Young Girl,  Magazines for the Principal,  My Snowy Year in Buffalo and Rainy Night on the Highway)

I loved my time in libraries and still believe bringing books and good literature to kids is surely the best job in the world.

But of course there was also the less inspiring,  technical side of the job –  ordering,  processing, and shelving books;  weeding the collection;  and maintaining the card catalog.

In fact I prided myself on keeping my card catalog current by adding extra subject cards to help students find books that reflected their interests as well as the school’s curriculum and my teaching colleagues’ assignments.

But by the late 1980’s the library card catalog was becoming a thing of the past and New York City’s school libraries –  as all school and university and public libraries around the country – were computerizing and their catalogs going online.

We librarians were trained to use and maintain the new online catalogs knowing our old wooden card catalogs would soon be obsolete.   But it was heart wrenching for me to think the custodian would soon come to haul mine away,   and so to make the parting less painful I decided to keep my library’s shelf list.   A shelf list is a listing –  in my library’s case on cards – of every book in the collection arranged not by author,  title,  or subject as in the public access catalog,  but rather by its Dewey Decimal or Library of Congress assigned classification number.

But of course my shelf list was accessible online as well with no need to keep those dog-eared 3 x 5 cards.   And so I eventually gave up my hard copy shelf list and crossed over – a bit nervously –  to the brave new world of technology.

The kids,  on the other hand,  had no trouble transitioning from the card to the online catalog.   In fact much of her early computer know-how this old school librarian learned from her tech savvy students!

– Dana Susan Lehrman 

Profile photo of Dana Susan Lehrman Dana Susan Lehrman
This retired librarian loves big city bustle and cozy country weekends, friends and family, good books and theatre, movies and jazz, travel, tennis, Yankee baseball, and writing about life as she sees it on her blog World Thru Brown Eyes!

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  1. Betsy Pfau says:

    I remember those old card catalogs very well, Dana, but I’m sure these digital natives find it much easier to navigate the online world better than we could ever hope to. We had to yield to progress.

  2. John Shutkin says:

    I feel for you, Dana, and for your loss in those sacred index cards, When I first started practicing law, the libraries at law firms were huge — and often highlighted with glass walls right behind the main reception area — and we associates spent so much of our time poring over huge volumes of legal decisions in them. Gradually, of course, more and more of the resources came online and we all had computers in our offices. Yet I am still amazed when I am in law firm offices and I see the space that used to be these libraries.

    And I even remember priding myself on my own knowledge of the Dewey Decimal System. But I can only imagine how difficult this evolution must have been on you librarians.

  3. Khati Hendry says:

    Of course I remember Dewey decimal and card catalogues, and the Index Medicus and the stacks of articles cut from journals and placed in file cabinets. Really hard to throw all that out. While I recognize the value of storing information in machines and clouds, I have mused about what would happen when the grid is destroyed, how much will be lost (more than the destruction of the library in Alexandria) and how much I could remember to give a clue to the young people who might survive. Just your regular doomsday stuff. In the meantime, I am glad I have a few photographs in hard copy.

  4. Laurie Levy says:

    Learning from younger people, students or my kids and now my grandkids, seems to be the way it goes. It was nice to touch the cards back in the day, but I suppose very inefficient compared with all of the information amazingly at our fingertips.

  5. Suzy says:

    Yes, I was sad when those old card catalogues disappeared, but I must admit that looking for books or documents online is a whole lot faster! Still, it would be fun to have one of those old wooden cabinets with the little drawers for the cards. Not sure what I would put in them, but I know I could figure out something.

    • Thanx Suzy.
      My son went to Brown while the late Vartan Gregorian was president, who formerly had been president of NY Public Library.

      We were there for parents weekend and invited to a reception at the president’s house. When introduced I told him I was a librarian and he took my hand and led me to another room to show me a wooden card catalog he had saved from NYPL!
      I don’t remember if I asked what he kept in it – maybe the old catalog cards!

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