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Olin & Uris Libraries

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Finding Books: From Card Catalog to Mobile App

Imagine the area now occupied by Olin’s computer workstations, from the striped “Tiger Alley” hallway to the south wall, filled with wooden catalog cases: tall, massive blocks composing a maze of numbered, alphabetically labeled drawers, each packed 20 inches deep with 3×5 cards. That was the Library’s “Union Catalog,” so called because it contained cards for items held by every one of Cornell’s campus libraries. It occupied triple the space taken up by the card catalog in Uris Library and comprised more than 6,500 drawers.

The cards themselves could be handwritten (in a uniform “library script”), typewritten, or computer generated. Only 40 percent filled in 1961, the catalog had to be augmented by an additional row of cases 20 years later. To find books about a given topic, patrons needed to master the Library of Congress Subject Headings and understand basic rules of filing; no keyword searching was possible.

But as early as 1973, the Library began to create machine-readable records for its holdings through national bibliographic utilities, positioning itself for the eventual unveiling of the Cornell Library Online Catalog on April 1, 1988 and continuing to add new data and retrospectively convert millions of records from the physical catalog. The process was finally completed in June 2007.

Off-campus access to the online catalog became available in 1989, keyword searching in 1991, and a Web-based interface in 2000. Removal of the card catalog began in summer 1992, as public computers took over the spaces left behind.

Today, thanks to the Library’s mobile apps, double the content recorded in the original Union Catalog — and far more — literally fits in the palm of your hand.