October 12, 2007

Olin Library Retires Card Catalog System

Print More

While many students spent last summer trying to get as far away from Cornell’s libraries as possible, the Cornell University library system completed a 32-year-long retrospective conversion, or “recon” project, in which it converted the card catalog for each of Cornell’s 20 unit libraries into digital form.
According to Jim LeBlanc, head of Database Management at Library Technical Services, the recon project that began in 1975 was completed at 11:30 a.m. on June 29. With the completion of this project, Cornell’s acquisition of over eight million titles and volumes was converted into the library’s internet-based public access catalog.
“Marjorie Robinson, a former rare books cataloguer who converted a substantial portion of the catalog cards for Cornell’s rare materials … converted the last title on her last day of work before retiring,” said LeBlanc.
To convert the card catalog, each main entry card was checked against either the Online Computer Library Center or Research Libraries Information Network, two national library databases. If an online record was found, the record was imported for Cornell use. If no pre-existing record was available, the catalog information was entered into the online system according to strict data entry protocol.
According to LeBlanc Cornell library staff and students helped with the planning and problem-solving dimensions of the recon project; however, most of the recent work was outsourced to OCLC.
Aside from the time-consuming nature of the work, LeBlanc cited a lack of resources as the principle obstacle for the project’s completion. Grants were the main source of funding, but LeBlanc explained why they were few and far between.
“It was not always easy to get money for a project that was not all that sexy,” LeBlanc said. “We may be one of the last [universities] to have completed conversion. That’s because we’re so large and funding … is difficult to come by.”
An $850,000 grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation in 2001 provided a much needed boost for the recon project and aided the conversion of more than 400,000 titles between 2001 and 2005. Significant funding was also dispensed by the South Central Regional Library Council of Ithaca.
Another reason why the project took so long, according to LeBlanc, was that since all of the titles were already cataloged on cards, processing new acquisitions took a higher priority.
The card catalog cabinets, which held over 10 million individual index cards, were moved from the first floor of Olin Library in order to create more space for research computers.
LeBlanc assured that all of the 3×5 index cards will be recycled, except the cards for Cornell’s Harris Collection, which according to The Library’s website, contain rare nineteenth-century primary sources in American and European history, the classics, English literature, the history of science and linguistics.
David Banush, head of Cataloging Services at Library Technical Services, added that the space currently occupied by the card catalog cabinets will be turned into open study space over winter break.
With the recon project completed, the Large-Scale Digitization Initiative that will digitize a substantial portion of their print collection.