Back When It Used to Mean Something

During a recent discussion with some of my graduate students I used a term that drew blank stares: card catalog. No one under thirty had heard of one and no one under forty had ever seen one. Back in 2015, Erin Blakemore writing for Smithsonian Magazine published an article “The Card Catalog is Officially Dead.” I suspect the venerable system of indexed cards in a multi-drawered wooden case was functionally deceased long before that, but Blakemore does a nice job of describing the wake. 

I brought up the card catalog in the context of performing academic research.  I graduated from Hendrix College in 1987. I’d like to think I’m not exactly ancient, but to a twenty-something, I probably seem like it. Back when dinosaurs roamed the Earth…

Like my great-grandfather who was alive to see the advent of the automobile, the airplane and even the Moon landing (which I don’t think he ever fully believed), I was born in time to own and regularly use a typewriter to do my early writing. To this point, I had a student ask, “what happens if you make a mistake?” I explained erasers, Liquid Paper, correction tape and fancy of fancies – a typewriter that could self-correct. Then another asked, “what if you needed to move a whole paragraph?” I mimicked the zwip! sound a sheet of paper makes as it’s being ripped out of the machine. I saw the life leaving their eyes as I spoke. 

To further induce horror, I told them about having to physically go to the library, comb through the card catalog, troll the stacks and hope the book you wanted was actually on the shelf.  I wanted to tell them about using microfiche, but I don’t like it when they cry.

To be clear, I am not especially romantic about the “good” old days. It was a pain in the rear. The book I wanted was never on the shelf and the person who had it wasn’t due to return it any time soon. Everything I did took ten times as long and was probably a quarter as thorough. 

In his typical good-natured way, David waxed poetic about using the time to have a cup of coffee while the cards worked their way through the glowing box.

All this said, everything is relative. My dissertation supervisor at Albany, David McDowall, once told me about using hundreds of punch cards to perform statistical tests.  They had to be in order, aligned and you had to wait a while for the analysis to churn its way through the computer. In his typical good-natured way, David waxed poetic about using the time to have a cup of coffee while the cards worked their way through the glowing box. He probably sensed in me the same horror I felt listening to my students. 

I will say, however, there is a tiny part of me that misses the chase. I often watch the PBS show, The Woodwright’s Shop, with host, Roy Underhill. Everything Underhill does is as manual and hand-drawn as it could be. There’s no whirring table saw, no electric planer, no nail gun. Everything is done a saw stroke and hammer strike at a time. There’s a certain nobility in knowing how to do things the hard way. There’s authenticity to it. The products somehow feel more real. 

Of course, modern academia holds no truck with such notions. Journal impact scores, tenure files and all the other alleged indicia of academic merit can’t abide such slow-cooked naïveté. If you need me, I’ll be tying this essay to the foot of a pigeon. 


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