Weinberger on the Card Catalog

Again, let me start off by saying that Everything is Miscellaneous is a really great book, particularly for an old librarian/IA type like me. Fascinating stuff.

But Weinberger’s comparisons and criticisms of the card catalog in libraries seem odd. There’s hardly a library in the US that still uses them. Even the smallest public libraries have probably converted to an OPAC years ago–many in the mid 80s. Why even bring them up?

Even if you want to keep the argument in the offline world of libraries, Weinberger still makes it seem like the card catalog is the only access point to books. It’s not. There are many many bibliographies and reference resources that slice and split works by any number of facets. There are also many different indexes to articles with many many access points. Heck, you can even see who else has cited that important scientific article you found with the Science Citation Index. Weinberger over-simplifies a very complex system of citations and linking of resources that exist in physical libraries.

I agree with Weinberger that the third order of organization the web affords is different, but not because other means of accessing books (just to stick with that example) don’t exist. That vision was already there in the paper world.

There are indexes that provide access to Bach cantatas by the first line of text, for instance. Same for poetry. And then there are the countless literature guides in just about any discipline and sub-discipline.

So what the web really changes is:
a.) Who is doing the organizing. Now it’s everyone instead of information professionals
b.) The time it takes to create new lists of access points to books, to then find those list, and to use them effectively.

The Time of Information in the third order, then, is the real thing to focus on. It’s not about more information or more ways to organize information or even more people doing the organizing. The information experience people have in the third order world of the web is one that changes the relationship and proportions of time in information seeking, organizing, and use.

About Jim Kalbach

Head of Customer Experience at MURAL


  1. Thank you for this, James.

    You’re right that I oversimplify library resources: part rhetoric, part sloth, part ignorance. But I didn’t intend to imply that libraries still use card catalogs. I intended to use it as a familiar example. Nevertheless, OPACs repeat many of the limitations of physical catalogs, don’t they: Reduced info, centralized control, limited sorting.

    Your point about the richness of available indices and catalogs is a really good one. And the Time of Information not only lets us find relationships, it also lets us drive down informational dead ends faster, which is a tremendous benefit.

  2. James Kalbach


    I think OPACs have (and have always had) a lot more potential that librarians could have exploited better, but I wouldn’t say they repeat many limitations of physical catalogs…at least not those you list.

    – Reduced info: Unless you’re scanning in books, there is no way around this. It’s always going to be a reduction. But OPACs have way more information than cards. Individual chapters in books or songs on catalogued CDs can be searched with OPACs. The MARC format allows for hundreds of access points.
    – Centralized control: true, but to some degree you want this in a library. It would interesting to have both controlled and uncontrolled systems of organization, but you wouldn’t want to give up a controlled environment for physical books.
    – Limited sorting: Not sure I follow this one. Searching is greatly enhanced with OPACs, though.

    The bigger problem I see with OPACs (and card catalogs, if we have to mention them) is that librarians used them primarily for themselves. Traditionally, library systems very content-oriented and not user-centered. This is where the vision fails, and this is where IA comes in, in my opinion.

    The usability of library systems–offline and online–is generally terrible. Librarians then rely on something called bibliographic instruction to bail themselves out. This is a cop out. Make the system easier for average people to use. And most OPACs have terrible usability.

  3. Pingback: Information Review does not care for it, but Lucy at Over the Backyward eFence does | Everything is Miscellaneous

  4. Pingback: Everything is Miscellaneous by David Weinberger « Kvams

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