Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Filing Catalog Cards

Filing cards in the catalog is another “lost” library art. The card sorter for those who have a computerized catalog seems like a relic of the past, but since it is still being sold I should have explained how to use it before explaining the rod in a card drawer. This column is co-written with the help of Tim O’Shaughnessy.

Since filing cards is potentially more tense than removing a drawer rod, I’m offering a plate of bagels. Bagels are round – without beginning or end. This indicates what was once an endless task, filing cards. Today we still think cataloging never ends, but the physical filing of cards is a dying art.

This is card sorter. Some people called it a “sorting stick” but the suppliers call it a “card sorter.” Today it costs about $44.00 new. This well used item had to be dug out of storage. The sorter helps divide the task into smaller pieces and makes the process more organized than sorting with bare hands. It measures about 23” x 3.5” (58 x 9 cm)

There are 24 plastic coated “leaves” or “flaps” ; one for each letter of the alphabet except the letters “XYZ” which are combined. Each "leaf" is about 4" tall, and is also has the numbers 0 – 9 for numeric sorting and 000-900 for Dewey numbers. It also has the words “fiction,” “travel,” and ”biography” as you can see for those sorting options. The top, or leading edge, of each leaf is rounded and very smooth to prevent cards "catching."

To operate you take standard catalog cards one at a time and slide the cards up the stick until you are just past the correct slot (let's say slot "L") and then move back down, catching the card under the lip, and releasing the card as it hits the bottom of the slot.

The pictures below show this action.

When you sort quickly, the card sliding over each leaf end sounds like a card pinned to your bike spokes...brrrrp, brrrrrp, brrrrrp. This process is so easy that I was able to teach my son to alphabetize card when he was in first grade. For the rough sort all he needed to know was the first letter of the card needed to match the letter on the sorter. He was able to quickly do the *initial* alpha sort. When all the slots are filled, empty them. Use rubber bands or put the cards into piles to keep them together for further sorting.

Now is the time you need to refresh your knowledge of files rules. Take out your copy of ALA Rules.  

Take each deck of cards and refine the sort using the second letter or the whole first word on the card. Repeat until the cards are in exact order to make your time at the drawers more efficient. Yes, it is actually more efficient to spend the time sorting than wasting time at the drawers.

If sorting shelf list cards in Dewey sort using the numbers. Do the 0-9 sort, then sort all the 100s, 110s, 120, etc. If using Library of Congress Classification, use the letters as before. Repeat ad nauseum.

It's 10x faster to do it, versus telling you *how* to do it.

Some people hated filing; others loved it; most thought it was just a tedious, necessary task to help the patrons and librarians and find items.

After you finish the task you deserve some sweets. Enjoy some chocolate.


Anonymous said...

Filing cards was a horrendous job, one which I abandoned as soon as we had an online catalog, even though most people thought I was too trusting. I never encountered a catalog that was in anyway close to perfect. Anyone who ever filed a catalog card freaked out at the opening to Ghostbusters (except the actress in the movie, who freaked out about the ghosts--personally, I would have been trying to shove those cards back in the catalog).

Tenormary said...

We called them Idiot Boards - and the sorting part was tedious. But the filing wasn't really so bad. We would go to the catalog in twos or threes - one or two to file and one to revise before "dropping" the cards. A lot of good campionship over those cards. None as we it in out cubbies "filing" and "dropping" at the computer keyboard.

BethCorkAbi said...

In one of my first professional librarian jobs, I had to train and revise staff who filed cards. We had one person who sorted all the new cards (and those that needed refiling after correction). Each card filer had a max. number that they would file each day. It was about 1.5-2 inches. So, some days we didn't get all the cards filed and had to merge with the next day's new cards.

Newly trained filers had to file "above the rod", so that I could check their work. Then I would pull the rod out, drop the cards, and run the rod back through them. Every once in a while, someone would drop the drawer while the rod was out, and the entire drawer would need to be resorted. Horrors!

It was a happy day when we stopped filing and closed the public catalog (the frozen card catalog remained for some time for users who didn't want to use the online catalog).

Carol said...

I loved that scene in Ghostbusters and yes, I freaked out when I saw it the first time. We had students who filed cards above the rod and then we went out and checked behind and dropped the cards. Those were the days...

Joan said...

I remember it well. Miss it! Such a satisfying feeling, getting a big batch of cards in alphabetical order, and ready for filing in PC (public card catalog)! I enjoyed filing too.

Jacquie said...

I had to split a school library into a K-2 building and a 3-5 building. I had to use a card sorter to alphabetize shelf list cards by author first. Then I had to pull all the author cards. Next I alphabetized by title and pulled all title cards. Then subject number 1,2 or more, illustrator, series title etc. When all done - everything had to be alphabetized into the new catalog. Think I was done forever? Think again. Two years later they decided to build onto the k-2 and merge the students again. So - after all that work, I had to merge the catalog back to its original state for the "new" k-5 library.

Jody said...

I not only freaked out with the scene in Ghost Busters, but also with all the flying cards in the library with The Breakfast Club. So glad I don't have to file cards today!

Of Life, Education, E-bay, Travel & Books said...

I started out in a library that had a card catalog and a hand circulation system done on cards. Every day we had to alphabetize the book cards and file them by due date. I hated doing that and I hated filing catalog cards even more.

Rita Goodbook said...

I found a sorting stick in my library, and I still use it to sort my overdue notices by homeroom. The computer will print them that way, but when they print three to a sheet and then get cut apart, they aren't in order any more, and besides, I do them into two different buildings. Maybe I'm the idiot. But the stick is cool.

I'd like to see a post about the electric tool that put white writing on taped book spines. I have one in a drawer that weirdly has a light bulb attached to it. Can you "enlighten" us?

Daniel Stuhlman said...

To Rita Goodbook:

Two people asked about explaining writing call numbers on book spines. I have never done this and no one in the library I work has ever done it. We have no tools that I can photograph. The process must have died in the 1940's or earlier.

Daniel Stuhlman said...

Received via e-mail from Margo Knightbridge. (British spellings are from the original.)

I work as a cataloguer, but in my earlier years worked as a processing assistant. We wrote call numbers on book spines with an electric pen that had a hot wire as a 'nib'. We used strips of coloured heat-sensitive tape which were stretched across a book spine,and we then wrote the number on the tape and the heat transferred it to the book spine. I have not seen one of these pens for many years, but we were using them in my library up till about 20 years ago.

Pseudonym: Songbird.

Daniel Stuhlman said...

From Richard Bazile via e-mail.

Card sorter? Why I never! Ha Ha Ha

I don't remember them at all. I wonder if there is one floating around in the LRC.

The card sorter pictured is from the Wright College collection.

Robert L said...

I remember typing Catalog Cards using a Platen that had a metal bar on it to hold the cards in place, And if you made a mistake we used an electric eraser to correct it.

There was also the lettering of the books on the spine with a heated pen and white heat transfer tape.

I am so glad those have disappeared!

Daniel Stuhlman said...

From Ann Whitney via e-mail:

I've not forgotten [card sorting]. I still file, use card sorter, etc. I was taught by my then director, she started out as cataloger and even after going on line, etc., insisted on us keeping the card catalog. It's been 10+ yrs. since she retired, but my
next director also insisted. She just retired, but all our patrons love the idea of it, even those that don't know what it is, so until I retire in four months (but who's counting?) or our new director is chosen, I keep on filing. I also type my own cards. Filing is back-breaking to say the least. I hope as I leave, I get to dump the drawers.

Daniel Stuhlman said...

From Sheryl Pockrose via e-mail.

Hi, Daniel - here are a few ideas --

1) Writing in "library hand" cursive (actually that went out even before I was hired in reference in 1983)

2) Using the electric eraser to change entries, without erasing a hole into the card.

3) Using the manual typewriter with special platen to hold a catalog card, and getting the subject heading typed in red at just the right spot along the top edge.

Luckily I didn't come to the catalog dept. until 1995, when most of the tedious card work was over - I would not have been a very good "old school" cataloger, but I enjoy it a lot with the help of technology.

Glad to see your blog - I will definitely take a look at previous entries when I have some time!


Daniel Stuhlman said...

From John F. Myers via e-mail.

I hadn't had to use one since sorting circulation cards as a work-study employee in college. When my first library as a professional moved to a new building, there were a number of these floating around which were
discarded. I scored one and have it still.

Daniel Stuhlman said...

From via John F. Myers e-mail.

RE: Lost library skills: Lost art suggestions

Perhaps the typing of cards and pockets -- and for the cards, the use of the special platen in the typewriter?

Maybe the actual typing of a card catalog card if copy weren't available -- in particular, the indention conventions for the card heading (and formatting options for name/title vs. subject entries, e.g. all caps,
red ink), for the main body, and first line of paragraphs.

Apropos of a later AUTOCAT posting regarding the discovery of electric
erasers, perhaps pulling and revising a card set?

More of a circulation thing: the use of the plastic covers with colored tabs over the circulation cards to track the weeks when things were due. An associated artifact would be the "drawers" in which circulation cards were filed.

grayreader said...

I like the trend of your blog - if you haven't written about Cutter numbers they would make an interesting entry as well.


Daniel Stuhlman said...

Thanks Greyreader. I was not aware that cutter numbers are old technology. While were don't use the three or four digit cutter numbers very often, the use of Cutter numbers is still the way books are arranged on the shelf.

However, I will investigate the history of the Cutter tables and report on what usages are current and what is obsolete.

Anne said...

I hope you don't mind, but I have pinned one of your sorting stick photos to my pinterest board - http://pinterest.com/pin/287034176220625067/ - and linked back to your post.

I couldn't see a copyright commons statement on your work, so I hope this is OK. If not, please leave a comment and I will delete the pin.

Thanks for sharing such an interesting artefact and description of how it was used, which I'm sure will be of interest to younger librarians.

Kindest and best