Letters in response to the Library's announcement that it would be closing the Card Catalog

From the ALMANAC, November 25, 1986


Computer vs. Card Catalog?

As a faculty member who has had a long and pleasant association with the University libraries, I find myself in the unhappy position of feeling compelled to register a strong protest against the planned elimination of the card catalogue in favor of the computer. Some time ago, when this changeover was first broached, I wrote to Dick De Gennaro in a similar vein and was promised a meeting between him and interested faculty members to discuss the matter. No such meeting ever occurred, and the library staff continued the programmed phase-out of the catalogue without consultation with the faculty at large--the principal long-term users of the library, Now I read in the report of the Director of Libraries that the catalogue is to be closed already in February--even before the Dewey collection is in the computer!

I could give you a long list of the advantages of the card catalogue over the computer (and will be happy to do so if requested), but let me mention here only some very practical ones. Recently the library's computer system was "down" one day from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.: if this happens again as it is sure to on various occasions after the elimination of the card catalogue, there will be long periods during which no record of the library's holdings will be available. Card catalogues, unlike computers, are never "down"! Secondly there are sure to be times when lines will form at the computer terminals; in the card catalogue dozens of people can be looking up things at the same time, since each has a separate drawer of cards to work with. Finally, as is well known, certain types of "browsing" can be done far better and faster with the card catalogue than with the computer.

Obviously an equally long list of advantages of the computer could be adduced, and I would not challenge it. I would never propose to deprive computer fans of their playthings, but I do strongly resent their depriving the rest of us of ours. My proposal is simply that both systems be allowed to coexist.

The only argument I have heard against this is one of cost; however, I contend that this objection is not valid. Once the cataloguing has been done, whether for computer or any other medium, only the semi-skilled work of typing and filing cards would be needed to maintain the card catalogue. Surely the modest cost of this is well justified by the service it would provide.

The Penn library system is, as I know from personal experience, one of the most "user-friendly" systems in the country, in large part thanks to the helpful attitude and cooperation of the fine staff. I am appalled that it has rushed headlong to join the herd of libraries carried away by the latest fad of computerization, without giving thought to the disservice it is rendering to many of its regular users.

I therefore respectfully request that the Library Committee hold hearings on the proposed phase-out of the card catalogue and that the Library be enjoined from proceeding with any phase-out until the completion of the hearings,

Albert L. Lloyd
Professor of Germanic Languages


Dr. Wood Responds to Dr. Lloyd

I have spoken to Mr. De Gennaro and we are in agreement that the subject of the "Phase-out" of the card catalogue is a valid item for further discussion. In consequence, we will be pleased to include this discussion as a principle agenda item at our next meeting of the Advisory Committee of the University Library on December 17, 1986 at 3 p.m. We would be pleased if you and other interested parties would attend the meeting at that time. The meeting will be held in the Woody Seminar Room next to the administration offices on the second floor of Van Pelt Library.

Margaret Gray Wood, M.D.
Professor of Dermatology, HUP


Mr. De Gennaro Adds

It is true that Dr. Lloyd wrote me a letter several years ago expressing his misgivings about the library's intention to computerize its catalogs and asking for a meeting to discuss the issue. I had intended to arrange a meeting with him, but I did not do so and I offer him my sincere apologies. His suggestion that the Advisory Committee on the Library hold hearings is appropriate and timely and I would of course be pleased to participate in those hearings and receive the Committee's advice on this critical issue.

Before addressing the issue of consultation I would like to clarify a misunderstanding regarding the closing of the card catalog. When we refer to closing the catalog, we mean only that no additional cards will be added to the catalog. The existing card catalogs will continue to be in place and accessible until such time as the records in them have been included in the online catalog. Thus, Dr. Lloyd's fears that the catalog access to the Dewey books will be curtailed are unfounded.

Although the meeting that Dr. Lloyd requested a few years ago did not occur, I cannot accept his allegation that "the library. staff continued the programmed phase-out of the catalogue without consultation with the faculty at large." I find it hard to measure the adequacy of consultation on any particular issue, but I have tried my very best to publicize the library's Five Year Plan with its major goal of converting the library's cards catalogs and making them available on the Penn Library Information Network (PennLIN).

I first proposed these plans in the 1981-82 Annual Report entitled Planning Ahead which was published in Almanac December 7, 1982. The following year I featured the full text of the Library's Five Year Plan in my annual report published in Almanac January 17, 1984. In my 1983-84 report (Almanac January 15, 1985) 1 informed the community of a $1.5 million grant from The Pew Memorial Trust to fund the technology initiatives set forth in the Library's Five Year Plan. Every subsequent annual report (Almanac December 3, 1985, November 11, 1986) has contained a detailed progress report on implementation of PennLIN.

The Library's Five Year Plan, including the issue of computerizing the catalogs, was thoroughly discussed and approved by the Library Committee under the chairmanship of Dr. Lawrence Bernstein in 1983. Every Library Committee since then, including the current one, has reviewed the Library's plans and encouraged us to proceed. This October we made the online catalog available in test mode with a 300,000 record data base and it has met with an enthusiastic reception. We expect the system to be highly reliable, but as with any complex system, there may be occasional brief outages.

I am sorry that Dr. Lloyd views the online catalog as the mere plaything of computer fans. I disagree. I think it is a major advance over the card catalog, but I will not argue the case here. I would merely note that every major library in the U.S. (and the rest of the industrialized world) is in the process of computerizing its card 'catalogs. It is not a fad, it is the way library catalogs are going to be in the future.

Dr. Lloyd's proposal that the library continue to maintain the card catalog along with the online catalog in not financially feasible. The cost of maintaining the currency of multi-million card catalogs is far from trivial. The Penn community is going to have to choose one form of catalog or the other.

I had assumed that it had already made that choice in favor of the online catalog, but I am prepared to test that assumption. I would welcome the hearings by the Library Committee that Dr. Lloyd has suggested.

Richard De Gennaro,
Director of Libraries


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