Remembrance of Things Past: or, The Card Catalog – ACCESS CLOSED!

What better way to close Open Access week than with a post on the card catalog? The Library of Congress’s In Custodia Legis (the blog of the law librarians of congress) has posted a photo of a notice users still find at the entrance to the card catalog, and librarian Christine Sellers explains: “When you walk into the Reading Room of the Law Library of Congress, you might notice something you haven’t seen in a while. A card catalog that is still in use, though no new cards have been added since December 1980.”

Open Access is necessary – efficient, effective, fair. But more, the virtual world, its backlit windows, are like Whitman’s “…Houses and rooms [are] full of perfumes, the shelves [are[ crowded with perfumes, I breathe the fragrance myself and know it and like it, The distillation would intoxicate me also, but I shall not let it.” Though we can not smell it, the virtual world still attracts us, like a sterile flower.

We miss not just the card catalog, its thumb-worn cards housed in red oak, carefully annotated by the librarian’s perfect pencil, but we miss too the smell of the open stacks, the aisles and shelves of books like Ferlinghetti’s Backroads to Far Places. But that’s not all we remember and miss. We miss the mimeograph machine, helping teacher turn the drum, watching the press emerge, holding the freshly inked papers to our face, smelling the wet ink. We miss the feel and smell of the pages of books, the large windows full of available light, and when the sun slanted through the library windows on warm summer evenings, the lighted air in the high-ceilinged library, like Ezra Pound’s, from Canto XCIII: “…The light there almost solid.”

Where Winston Churchill meets Roddy Doyle; or, the Library is not a Zoo

“Fancy living in one of these streets – never seeing anything beautiful – never eating anything savoury – never saying anything clever!” The quote could easily have come from any one of Roddy Doyle’s many crude characters, hewn from a pub-lyrical pint in a Barrytown road: “Wha’ part o’ Dublin? Barrytown. Wha’ class are yis? Workin’ class. Are yis proud of it? Yeah, yis are…Your music should be abou’ where you’re from an’ the sort o’ people yeh come from,” Jimmy Rabbitte says, who will manage The Commitments to his vision of a Dublin band playing soul music.

But it can’t be a Roddy Doyle character said it, the bit about “never saying anything clever!” For Roddy Doyle characters rarely say anything that’s not clever. Clever’s what comes from never seeing anything beautiful and never eating anything savoury. But what’s savoury? For that, we might to go Roddy Doyle’s The Van: “He got the scoop in under the chips and got a grand big load into the bag, filled it right up. Good, big chips they were, and a lovely colour, most of them; one or two of them were a bit white and shiny looking.” A bit of tea to go with the fish, perhaps, from Roddy Doyle’s The Snapper: “He tried the tea. It was brutal.” But if it was a Roddy Doyle character said it, he would have said it passin’ through a Churchill neighborhood.

Brutal too is the knowledge that our opening quote does not come from a Roddy Doyle character, but from Winston Churchill, quoted, according to Adam Gopnik, in “Finest Hours,” in the August 30 New Yorker, by Edward Marsh, Churchill’s secretary, as Churchill visits a working class neighborhood in Manchester. Gopnik pulls the quote out to evidence that those closest to and in a position to assist the great in their finest and not so finest hours are in the best position to snap shots peculiarly revealing. Gopnik may have had other reasons for isolating the quote. For one thing, it’s possible Churchill’s enculturated attitude displayed in the quote explains his ability to use those living in those streets as cannon fodder in his war.

There certainly is something to be said for living in beautiful, savory, and clever conditions, as Jonah Lehrer explains in his Frontal Cortex blog: “In the late 1990s…the University of Illinois began interviewing female residents in…a massive housing project on the South Side of Chicago. Kuo and her colleagues compared women randomly assigned to various apartments. Some had a view of nothing but concrete sprawl, the blacktop of parking lots and basketball courts. Others looked out on grassy courtyards filled with trees and flowerbeds. Kuo then measured the two groups on a variety of tasks, from basic tests of attention to surveys that looked at how the women were handling major life challenges. She found that living in an apartment with a view of greenery led to significant improvements in every category.”

But literature does not come from the beautiful, the savory, and the clever, but from the brutal, the sardonic, and the cleft. Art does not come from patios filled with plants, but from greasy asphalt alleys glistening in flickering neon. This is why we must be careful of the library. The library is like a zoo, its books like wild animals, snakes, and deadly insects, but the library is not a zoo, for in a zoo there are cages that separate and protect us from the lions and tigers and bears. In a library, the stacks are open, and readers reach out and pet the books at their own risk.

And after leaving the library, assuming you make it out alive, and you’re hungry and there’s a food cart about, be sure they’re stuffing their wraps with real food and not nappies.