I am someone who fell in love with and was awed by card catalogs, first at my regional public library, and then later at the various universities I attended. I loved the idea of walking down rows of small drawers, each containing hundreds of books, and the sense of power having access to that much information suggested. I never really minded flipping through the cards, and I always looked forward to that moment of serendipity when, while searching for something else, I came across an intriguing title or description — it’s also what makes browsing in book stores or wandering among library stacks so exhilarating: there’s what you think you want to know and then there’s this … this other thing which maybe, just maybe, is exactly what you wanted to know, only you didn’t have the right words for it, didn’t know how to seek it out, weren’t sure it even existed. And yet there it is, on a care-worn card.
Computer catalogs are not the same, but that doesn’t make [the kinds of interesting things the New York Public Library is doing][nypl] with its catalog any less interesting. Quite the opposite. Given that computer catalogs cannot offer the kind of serendipity that card catalogs can, they must seek out those forms of serendipity that they alone can proffer and find ways to highlight that, so that entirely new generations of library users, either in person or on-line, can fall in love with the possibilities of information to delight us, if only in its sheer, and sometimes overwhelming, aggregation.