Smorgasbord Posts from Your Archives 2022 – ‘Potluck’ #Books – Being a Cataloguer by Audrey Driscoll

Since this series began in January 2018 there have been over 1000 Posts from Your Archives where bloggers have taken the opportunity to share posts to a new audience… mine.

The topics have ranged from travel, childhood, recipes, history, family and the most recent series was #PotLuck where I shared a random selection of different topics. This series is along the same lines… but is a ‘Lucky Dip’

In this series I will be sharing posts from the half of 2022

It is an opportunity to showcase your writing skill to my readers and also to share on my social media. Which combined is around the 50,000 mark. If you are an author your books will be mentioned too, along with their buy links and your other social media contacts. You can find out how to participate at the end of the post.

Today author Audrey Driscoll explores the development of the cataloging system for books from the 18th century to present day.

Being a Cataloguer by Audrey Driscoll

card catalogue drawers

Featured image from Pexels

Have you ever lost a book in your house? And, while looking for it, been surprised to find one you don’t remember buying (or borrowing)?

Imagine how hard it is to keep track of thousands of books distributed among multiple buildings and available to be borrowed by thousands of people. That’s the situation in libraries, especially large public libraries and those that are part of colleges and universities.

In past centuries, when books were owned by the privileged few, it was possible to keep track by means of handwritten lists and users’ knowledge of their collections. But with the proliferation of printed books, increased literacy, and the growth of universities, something flexible and expandable was needed.

Card-based book inventories emerged at the end of the 18th century. Rumour has it that in France, playing cards, whose backs were blank at the time, were pressed into service to keep track of book collections. A book’s particulars were written on the blank side of a card, and the cards filed in order. But the real development and standardization of the card catalogue happened in the United States. By the end of the 19th century, wooden cabinets with hundreds of cute little drawers full of 3 x 5-inch cards (familiar to most people of a certain age) were seen in just about all libraries, big and small.

Someone had to create, file, and organize those cards. Enter the cataloguer.

During the Golden Age of Cataloguing (defined by me to be more or less 1900 to 1980), just about all libraries of any size had cataloguing departments, employing anywhere from one person who did it all to dozens, working behind the scenes, largely unseen by and unknown to library users. Every book passed through that department, emerging with a spine label that was in effect its address in the library. And into those drawers went 3 x 5-inch cards bearing a distillation of each book’s essence: author, title, edition, publisher, place and date of publication. Number of pages and height. Series. Presence of bibliography and/or index. Subjects. Co-authors, editors, and illustrators. The ISBN and other identifying numbers.

Elaborate rules were devised for recording and presenting all this information in a systematic way. Devised, revised, and occasionally re-devised. In North America, half a dozen cataloguing codes were created during that century. I entered the profession when one of them, the Anglo-American Cataloguing Rules, second edition (AACR2) was adopted. Coincidentally, it was replaced by a new code not long before I retired.

In the 1960s, computers entered the picture and the whole thing was automated, by means of something called MAchine Readable Cataloging, aka “MARC Format.” Complex computer systems were created to use the data, first to print catalogue cards, and later for the online public catalogues still in use today. A whole new jargon and set of acronyms resulted. Real cataloguers “spoke MARC,” as in, “That goes in the 490, not the 245 p. The indicator is 1, so you need an 800, with the name from the 100 in ‘a’ and the title in ‘t.’” Translation: “That’s a series statement, not part of the title. It’s indexed, so add an author-title entry for it.” (Yeah, I know, that’s jargon too.) MARC Format was like a secret handshake among members of an occult society.

This was the milieu in which I spent my entire career as a librarian (1980 to 2016), at first in an environment cluttered with electric erasers, coding sheets, and coloured markers flagging new cards whose filing had to be checked. There was a never-seen-by-the-public master card catalogue called the “shelflist.” Books were adorned with an array of labels, stickers, coloured dots and spots. Passionate discussions, even arguments, occurred among cataloguers, about rule interpretations and minutiae of data. In the 1980s, the high discipline of Authority Control emerged–in effect, cataloguing the names of persons, things, and subjects, and creating a system of links among them.

Cataloguing was the perfect calling for a detail-oriented introvert with a fixation on order and organization.

Our mission was to apply and interpret the rules to create a map of our library’s collection, to help users find exactly what they needed, whether they were writing a thesis or looking for a good read. To create a catalogue record for a published work, the cataloguer must grasp the author’s intent, the information provided by the publisher, the needs of library users, and the rules and conventions of cataloguing. And sometimes the thing being catalogued is in a language of which the cataloguer has only the sketchiest knowledge.

Unfortunately, all this wasn’t always valued by managers and administrators. In fact, it often seemed they were our worst enemies, even our librarian colleagues. A whole department of behind-the-scenes specialists who spoke in arcane jargon and held books hostage until they had been subjected to obscure rituals? Bean-counting administrators focussed beady eyes on us as an unaffordable “cost centre.” We cataloguers became defensive, and resented having to justify our existence to people who refused to appreciate the value of our art. (And some of us secretly dreaded the prospect of being plucked from our cozy enclaves and thrust into contact with The Public.)

As the 20th century sputtered out, so did card catalogues. All those wooden cabinets were sold to people who thought they looked cool and retro, and were perfect for storing small collectibles. Library catalogues moved online, and there were calls for the death of the MARC Format, which was, after all, nearly 50 years old, like so many of the cataloguers who knew and loved it.

The Golden Age is over, but cataloguing hasn’t disappeared. Books and other intellectual creations still need to be organized, searched for, and cited. A giant entity called WorldCat has swallowed almost all the individual catalogues. Many libraries have disbanded their cataloguing departments and outsourced the work. Now we have something called “metadata,” a term familiar to self-published authors. Some (rather odd) people catalogue their personal book collections on Library Thing. As “search” enters a new era, many of those minutiae-worshipping, MARC-talking cataloguers have retired. Some of them are writing and publishing novels.

The narrator of my novel, The Friendship of Mortals, a guy named Charles Milburn, is a cataloguer at Miskatonic University in Arkham, at the beginning of the 20th century. The demands of the plot limit his opportunities to hold forth about his profession, but for those who are curious about it, there is a pretty good article in Wikipedia. Look under “Cataloging.” There’s also an interesting blog post about card catalogues from the USCard Tricks: The Decline & Fall of a Bibliographic Tool.

It’s possible to catalogue anything. A former colleague told me he had catalogued a dustball, with smaller dustballs as supplements. When I retired, my staff made a spoof catalogue record for me. Here it is, in glorious MARC Format. That’s what all those numbers and lowercase letters are. Cataloguers know what they mean; others don’t need to. (Apologies for the reflections from the laminated paper.)

Fake catalogue record for Audrey Driscoll in MARC Format

Click on the image and zoom it up to read!

©Audrey Driscoll 2022

My thanks to Audrey for permitting me to share posts from her archives and I know she would love to hear from you.

About Audrey Driscoll

Three quarters of the way through a career as a cataloguing librarian, Audrey Driscoll discovered she is actually a writer. Since the turn of the millennium, she has written and published several novels and a short story collection. She gardens, juggles words, and communes with fictitious characters in Victoria, British Columbia. Her opinions on gardening, writing, and things that bug or delight her, along with information about her books, may be found on her blog at

A selection of books by Audrey Driscoll

One of the reviews for the recently published SHE who returns

Kevin B.5.0 out of 5 stars Egyptian Intrigue  Reviewed in the United States on May 25, 2022

For some reason, ancient Egypt never fails to fascinate modern human beings. We can’t get us enough Tutankhamun. The pyramids, the Sphinx, the Valley of the Kings all inspire our imagination. In She who Returns, novelist Audrey Driscoll has taken this universal fascination and combined it with a captivating female protagonist, France Leighton, serving up a plot full of action, mystery, and psychological complexity.

The story picks up a couple of years after the first book in the France Leighton series, She Who Comes Forth, which recounts France’s first adventure in Egypt (with her companion cello, Eudora). I highly recommend reading these two books in tandem, since She Who Returns is a true sequel that refers often and in detail to the events in the earlier book. (And at the moment She Who Comes Forth is only 99 cents for the Kindle edition!)

I won’t describe the plot here, but as you might imagine it involves tombs, ancient spirits, inexplicable phenomena, and chilling tension as France attempts to solve a few personal mysteries of her own. She’s fearless as she confronts powers beyond anyone’s comprehension, voices from the ancient world of pharaohs and slaves, tombs and curses.

What impresses me most in these books is Driscoll’s writing itself. She’s a master of detailed action sequences, as in this moment:

“The metal on the end of the whip whizzed inches from my eyes. I jerked as though electrified. The man twitched his chin in the direction we had come from. He flicked the whip back and then forward, striking sparks from the rock near me.”

Or here, where a reader’s heart rate is sure to start ramping up:

“We clicked off our flashlights. Instantly, the darkness enveloped us, invaded us, filled us to the brim. With sight disabled, it didn’t take long for hearing to take over and become paramount, hyper-acute, excruciating. First, the susurrus of our breaths, the lub-dub of the heart in my chest, the channeled flow of blood, the subtle creak of joint and tendon. Those sounds faded into the background of awareness, replaced by the faint crunch and snap of grit beneath our soles, the minute shift and grind of overburdened stone, the soft fall of dust.”

Moreover, if you’re a lover of H. P. Lovecraft, you’re sure to enjoy these two books, which are part of a larger, six-book series that nods his way, the Herbert West series. Be sure to check out all of them.

As another reviewer notes, She Who Returns would make a terrific movie, with its exotic settings and cast of intriguing characters. I don’t know who might play France Leighton, but whoever it is has big shoes to fill if she wants to depict France’s incredible moxie and intelligence to the max.

Read both books and become a new fan of Audrey Driscoll’s today. 

Read the reviews and buy the books :Amazon US – And: Amazon UK – follow Audrey: Goodreads – Website:Audrey Driscoll – LinkedIn: Audrey Driscoll

How to feature in the series?

  • All I need you to do is give me permission to dive in to your archives and find two posts to share here on Smorgasbord. (
  • Rather than a set topic, I will select posts at random of general interest across a number of subjects from the first six months of 2022. (it is helpful if you have a link to your archives in your sidebar by month)
  • As I will be promoting your books as part of the post along with all your information and links so I will not be sharing direct marketing or self- promotional posts in the series.
  • If you are an author I am sure you will have a page on your blog with the details, and an ‘about page’ with your profile and social media links (always a good idea anyway). I will get everything that I need.
  • As a blogger I would assume that you have an ‘about page’ a profile photo and your links to social media.
  • Copyright is yours and I will ©Your name on every post… and you will be named as the author in the URL and subject line.
  • Previous participants are very welcome to take part again.
  • Each post is reformatted for my blog and I don’t cut and paste, this means it might look different from your own post especially if you are using the block editor
  • If I do share a post which contains mainly photographs I will share up to five and link back to the original post for people to view the rest.

N.B – To get the maximum benefit from your archive posts, the only thing I ask is that you respond to comments individually and share on your own social media.. thank you.


40 thoughts on “Smorgasbord Posts from Your Archives 2022 – ‘Potluck’ #Books – Being a Cataloguer by Audrey Driscoll

  1. Thank you for this post.
    I didn’t think i would love this post but I absolutely do!
    I can relate so well.
    I used to (and still do) have a catalogue system for my Macrame patterns.
    I remember my card systems but was probably not really very good with it.
    I also worked in various part -time jobs when as college, where I was given the task of catalogueing and filing (Slightly different I know), I loved coming across the file in the wrong place or number and putting it right, there was something so satisfying in the ‘getting it right.’
    My Mum and Aunt Rose have their family history research in card index filing, and even though my mum (at 94) is a real whizz on the computer, she still prefers her card index…. and it really works.

    Thanks for sharing Audrey’s post Sally.
    Hmm…. Perhaps I need a better cataloging system myself?
    I keep putting things somewhere safe and then can’t find them!
    but then again when I look for them I find something else.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. What a past! But do not think it’s easy today. 😉 Everything needs to be catalogued, especially in Germany. Lol Now it’s called “meta tagging”, and honestly i was not able to do this with my own correspondence. Okay, you got me. I’ve just been too lazy up until now. Lol Thank’s to Audrey for this very interesting post. hugsx Michael

    Liked by 2 people

  3. What a fascinating post from Audrey. It’s funny how, as an outsider looking in, I had no idea of all the work and technical detail that went into cataloging. Those boxes and cards and labels were just magically there for my use. Thanks for the history, Audrey, and a great share, Sally.

    Liked by 3 people

  4. I enjoyed Audrey’s post a great deal. My grandmother was a library cataloguer in the early 1920s. Audrey’s description fit her to a T (my grandfather, too, but he was an engineer): “Cataloguing was the perfect calling for a detail-oriented introvert with a fixation on order and organization.” How about this Roger Ebert quote to counter the bean counters: “Doing research on the Web is like using a library assembled piecemeal by pack rats and vandalized nightly.”

    Liked by 3 people

  5. I really enjoyed this! As a student, I was familiar with looking up the book I wanted in the card system – only to find that all five copies had been taken out. (It did seem mean to have so few copies of a text we were all supposed to study!) In my first school I was put in charge of the library and had to deal with the Dewey Decimal System from the point of view of the cataloguer – hats off to them! One of my favourite pieces of this is under 520 of your mock entry – really funny and, I’m suspecting, containing more than a grain of truth! xx


  6. Pingback: Smorgasbord Blog Magazine Weekly Round Up – 8th – 14th August 2022 – Hits 2001, Spiritual Awareness, Waterford, Obesity, Book Reviews, Book Fair, Funnies | Smorgasbord Blog Magazine

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