Recent History of the Princeton University Library Catalog

The following essay by Richard J. Schulz, Associate University Librarian for Technical Services, was prepared in conjunction with the announcement that Firestone Library’s card catalog will be disassembled this summer. As the University Archives maintains the historical records of the University Library, we offer this for our patrons’ edification with thanks to the author for his permission in posting it.
The Card Catalog served as Princeton University Library’s primary database of acquired holdings until it was closed in 1981 when a major change in cataloging rules (AACR2) was adopted by the Library of Congress and all major research libraries in North America, Great Britain and many other libraries world-wide. As of 1981, no new cataloging was added to the Card Catalog. Updating of penciled-in bound volume holding notations to the records for existing serial and book-set titles continued to be made until 1989, when a project to retrospectively convert all active card serial and set titles was consummated. After 1989, therefore, the Card Catalog became a static partial representation of titles which the Library had acquired prior to 1981; in the terminology of the period, its status had changed from being “closed” to being “dead.”
In 1969, a microfilm copy was made of the pre-AACR2 Card Catalog as a backup for security reasons. This film copy is stored at the Library’s remote book shelving facility (ReCAP). A large number of the older hand-written card files in the Card Catalog had, at some earlier time, been re-typed, likely as a preservation measure. Documentation describing when this decision was made, and the extent to which it was applied, has been lost.

A separate AACR2 compatible card catalog, which represented a hard copy manifestation of machine-readable cataloging produced online as of 1981, briefly served as the active database of Library holdings from 1981 through 1984. The AACR2 card catalog was discarded in 1985 and replaced and by the Library’s first online catalog, TOMUS (commonly referred to as “Carlyle,” after the name of the company which marketed the underlying hardware/software platform).
Due to progressively serious deterioration of the card stock in the Card Catalog, all six million (ca.) cards were digitized (scanned) in 1992. The scanned database representing the original Card Catalog, termed the “Supplementary Catalog,” to distinguish it from the completely machine-readable “Main Catalog” of active holdings, continues to be publically available online through the Library’s website. The Supplementary Catalog is a digital reproduction similar to the 1969 microfilm copy noted above.
Changes, such as the wholesale replacement of Richardson call numbers with LC call numbers proceeding from the current reclassification project, are not reflected in the card images of the Supplementary Catalog. In 1998-2000, machine readable cataloging (MARC) records for the entire pre-AACR2 Card Catalog were produced and loaded into the Library’s Main (Online) Catalog. These records, supplied under contract with OCLC, were enhanced to include complete holdings from the shelf-list, and updated by the addition of AACR2 compatible headings, and other more contemporary and authoritative information, rendering the Card Catalog obsolete, except as an historical artifact.
At the time when the preservation scanning, which ultimately produced the Supplemental Catalog, was planned, an exhaustive analysis was made of the card versos to determine whether or not there was critical information on the backs of the cards which needed to be preserved, because it could not be reconstructed from other sources, particularly the Library’s shelf-list. No such information was found in this analysis, so the decision was made to abstain from scanning the card versos. In response to a more recent resurgence of concerns about the presence of important information on the backs of the cards in the old Card Catalog, a sampling of over 10,000 cards from the older files within the catalog confirmed the original analysis, i.e., not one instance of information on the card versos was uncovered which was not accounted for in the corresponding machine-readable record of the Library’s Online Catalog. The value of the Card Catalog as a source of information not otherwise obtainable in the Library’s Main (online) and Supplementary (scanned catalogs) is extremely dubious, and has never been demonstrated. What is plainly apparent is the vast amount of misinformation about the Library’s holdings which the Card Catalog now contains, especially since the Richardson reclassification project has invalidated the call numbers on the majority of the holdings represented therein.