Tuesday, June 3, 2014

In a Catalogue

Recently a friend of mine, Mandy Solomon, wonderful poet and faculty member at Pikes Peak Community College, shared a flash fiction prompt ("In a Catalogue") she gave to some of her students.  That was enough for me!  Below is what I wrote based on my experience (I'm not really a librarian, but was a circulation tech for a while) of converting from old card catalogs to the digital world way back when.


The green letters flashed on the screen like a visual metronome.    A bead of sweat rolled out onto Audrey’s left temple.  She clenched her fists and refused to touch the keyboard.  Her eyes scanned every inch of the dark gray screen.  It was flat, mute and devoid of life.  Here there was no texture, no rich vanilla color, no warmth of the life of the tree.  There on the keyboard her fingers would strike, not file.  Audrey wrested one fist from its grip to wipe the sweat from her forehead.  She hated this corner of Formica and steel where the green letters lived.  Soon they would be taking away the long and natural rows of card catalogues.  There were the luxurious little drawers filled with concise records of bound pieces of paper with real words on them—not words lost in digital nothingness.  How would she know where the words actually resided?  There would be no narrow shelves to slide out and onto which to rest the long drawers with the single, efficient, pin needling the cards together.  Only once in her career as a librarian had she needed that needle.  Only once had the sturdy drawer crashed from its thin pedestal, releasing just a few cards from the back. The solution was easy—bend over, pick up the long and awkward drawer and the few loose cards, set the drawer on the slender shelf, sort the cards and put them back into their appropriate space, push the brass head of the pin back into the lovely ochre-colored face of the drawer with a dull snap.  That was all.  Order out of chaos.

But now she was being required to have faith in an order she could neither see nor touch.  All the words summarizing and cataloguing her books had been converted to an untrustworthy digital database.  She scoffed aloud, “Converted!”  As if this new digital world were a religion! 

“Is there a problem, Ms. Audrey?”  The young tech stood behind her, a looming and lanky representative of the new age of computers.  “It’s alright.  Just put in the title and you should be able to get started.”

Audrey took a deep breath and counted to ten.  This young man knew nothing of the comfort of a card catalogue.  How could he know?  He trusted a machine to do the work of a librarian!

The youthful tech sensed the woman’s animosity and carefully backed away.  He had been warned about this librarian.

A new sensation touched Audrey’s face.  A tear wetted her check as she finally faced her deepest fear.  What if she hit the wrong key and all the unreal, green words, representing all of her wonderful books, disappeared?  She could hardly imagine the years of work that would vanish—especially when they finally loaded the card catalogues onto the trucks.

“This is ridiculous!” she finally announced to herself and the vacant, untextured screen.  Her fingers struck the keys with the ferocity required of a Smith-Cornoa Galaxie Twelve typewriter or a Tchaikovsky piano concerto.  Within milliseconds the screen was filled with green words, wonderful words.

Gibbon, Edward
The History of the Decline and the Fall of the Roman Empire, Volume 6

Audrey leaned close to the screen, her eyes filled with the beauty and wonder of an entire catalogue entry available with such speed at the tap of her fingers and in such lovely, leafy-green letters.

Copyright M.R. Hyde May 14, 2014

Homage to the cards of the card catalogue .  Created by Beryl K. Pagan, an actual and cheerfully forward-thinking librarian at Point Loma Nazarene University, who also is a friend of mine.  Remember Dewey!