Recently, I enjoyed a delightful afternoon burrowing into rabbit holes on my computer.  By chance I had come across a reference to William Carlos Williams, the poet and physician who lived in Rutherford, New Jersey during the early part of the twentieth century. That led me to thinking again about his celebrated sixteen-word poem, “The Red Wheel Barrow”, which I first encountered in college.


so much depends/upon/a red wheel/barrow/glazed with rain/water/beside the white/chickens


I’ve never understood this poem or why it should have received so much respect. So, since I was just fooling around and pecking keys on my laptop, I took a look at what scholars have had to say about it. Perhaps my investigation was too casual, but I still don’t get it. While I was at it, I looked into some more or less related matters, such as Williams’ notion of the variable foot, which was a feature of the prosody of his epic poem, Paterson, New Jersey. I didn’t make much sense of it either. But onward.

Another doctor/writer, George Sheehan, popped up on my screen. He wrote eloquently about running and being. I did understand his work.

And then along came Wallace Stevens, an insurance executive who lived in Hartford, Connecticut. By and large, I find his poems accessible. Who wouldn’t respond to “Sunday Morning” with charming lines, such as “late coffee and oranges in a sunny chair.” This led me to review my rusty understanding of imagism (Wiliams’ mode) and modernism (Stevens’ mode).

As is the way of a computer rabbit hole adventure, where changes of direction do not require reasons, I gained a bit of information about a number of things, learned to pronounce a couple of words, looked up some meanings, and before I was done, found myself reading about the Friday evening ritual of observant Jews. I had a Shabat meal with Orthodox friends once a long time ago. Since the ceremony was in Hebrew, I didn’t know what any of it meant. In translation, I found the prayer and the song that invited angels to the table stirring and uplifting.

This sort of mental meandering is how computers work best for me. It’s like having an immeasurably large library accessible in a few keystrokes. And for all the linearity of computer operations, it allows me to be the nonlinear person I am. It lets me be my natural self, a person who makes connections in everyday thinking pretty much the same way as in the inexplicable nimbleness of dreams.

But I do miss the card catalog and all that it entails.

Not so long ago, looking into the poetry of William Carlos Williams or anything else of even the least intellectual weight required going to a building where books were kept, riffling through a card catalog to see if anything helpful was in the collection that was housed there, and if so, noting the Dewey Decimal number which was the key to its location. It was a cumbersome process that was time-consuming and limited. But it had something of great value, something that does not exist on a computer keyboard.

The first library I knew was Tyrell Public Library in Beaumont. I would go there in the summer during grade school. It was in a former church, and it still felt church-like. It was quiet. Hushed even. A place set apart.

In college, the great library at the University of Texas occupied many floors of the twenty-nine story University tower. Its card catalog stretched along a wall the remarkable length of which I cannot estimate. The reading room had row upon row of big, solid oak library tables, under a high ceiling. It was a quiet oasis in the midst of thousands of lively young people, a place of refreshment from the labor of being no longer child, not yet adult. It was also home to scholarship of the greatest seriousness.

In London in the early nineties, I would go to the celebrated round reading room of the British Public Library that was inside the British Museum. I was working on a scholarly project, but I mostly went there day after day to sit with the ghosts of great minds who had read books there since 1753. It had an enormous card catalog. And it was quiet.

These libraries, even the relatively small Tyrell Public Library in Beaumont, had in them a sense of something almost sacred, an affirmation of the ultimate worth of words and sentences, learning and inquiry, of books and periodicals. For me, all libraries have that, though it’s not so obvious with some. In varying degrees, they call up something like the smell that the Scottish writer, Peter Ross, finds in old churches – “not just damp and dust, but faith and time.”

I appreciate what a computer offers easily to the inquisitive mind, but a computer is not a library. It is difficult to be fully human in a world without card catalogs and all that they entail.

NOW AVAILABLE – IN PAPERBACK – at Barnes and Noble and anywhere else books are sold except Amazon. Amazon is having a problem with certain ISBN numbers including those of the Franklin Manor books.

 A Franklin Manor Christmas and A Franklin Manor Epiphany. Deep-snow, magic realism.

12,000 Miles of Road Thoughts. Old Van, Old Man, Recovering Hippie, Dying Cat. Travel narrative/memoir

4 thoughts on “I MISS THE CARD CATALOG

  1. Judy Linsley

    As usual, Paul, you’ve nailed it. Libraries do have that wonderful old book smell that never failed to excite me. And I think card catalogs allow for a very special sort of browsing that Google doesn’t. I miss it. Thanks for bringing back a whole raft of memories!

  2. Nancy C Garniez

    And the stacks! Stumbling upon books heretofore unknown: That’s how I found Arthur Waley (Chicago Public Library, main branch, on a Saturday after sketch class at the Art Institute); that’s how I found the illuminating description of 18th-century keyboard technique which has transformed my reading of Mozart (Lincoln Center Library of the Performing Arts). Chance encounters. Life-changing.

  3. Mary Jane Wilkie

    I think that discoveries are available everywhere, but it’s the smell I miss the most, of both libraries and bookstores. It’s like Proust and the madeleine …

  4. F. C. Rosenberg

    It’s hard to be nostalgic for card catalogs, They wasted many hours that would have better been spent had the streamlined service of online catalogs been available. And the cards were often missing or out of proper order, or the information on them was incomplete or worse. I think you could find better losses to lament….
    We will not go back to card catalogs. They were too inefficient and error-prone. We will not go back to offices filled with banks of telephone operators, nor with the sound of typewriters clacking away. We will not go back to blocks of typists armed with carbon paper and erasers to blot out their typos.

    And yet– there is a bigger point here. When change comes, however salutary, it is good to reflect on what we lose in the process of change. So thanks for this one!


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