October 7, 2013

One library’s unused card catalog becomes art


Hope Schneider next to her Card Catalog Project. (Photo by Paul Franz for the Recorder.)

Earlier in the summer (and recently noted at The Rumpus), the Recorder of Greenfield, Massachusetts wrote about a community college librarian who saved her library’s card catalog by transforming it. After lives in dark drawers, 128 of the cards—now marked by their corresponding authors—have been preserved as a permanent installation on the library’s walls.

Hope Schneider of Greenfield Community College conceptualized the project nearly fifteen years ago when the library digitized its catalog. “In the years that followed,” Recorder reporter Chris Shores wrote:

Schneider sent cards to local authors and artists, asking if they would sign their card and make some contribution to the display. A decade later, after GCC’s library was expanded, she resumed her quest—sending letters across the country to novelists, poets and politicians.

Those who participated found ways to customize their cards. Eric Carle of The Very Hungry Caterpillar drew a bug in black, pink, and green; former poet laureate Billy Collins stretched a poem across three of his cards: “I love card catalogues / but I only wish / my cards were more dogeared!” Some, however, refused. Wendell Berry, who seems to disagree with the preservationary aspect of Schneider’s project, wrote, “I refuse to cooperate in any way in the destruction of the card catalogues, which I think is a mistake, a loss, a sorrow.”

Deborah Chown, the library director at Greenfield Community College, values Schneider’s project for its function as a window to another time, where unrelated books were found serendipitously due to the card catalog’s physical arrangements. Chown explained,

Every once in a while you see someone buried intently in a particular area, sitting on the floor with three or four books around them. But it seems that everyone’s so busy and they just want what they want…. They go directly to the shelf and take it out and go their merry way.

Chown and Schneider were surprised to notice that touring prospective students didn’t recognize the cards in their library’s display; I myself have only encountered true card catalogs in rare book rooms and small county libraries. Despite the inevitable changes that led to the installation, the Card Catalog Project’s pamphlet claims, “The catalog is not really lost and it hasn’t disappeared—it’s just changed form.” The library seems hopeful that loss will be perceived less than what contains it—the library that lives on.


Emma Aylor is a former Melville House intern.