Of Libraries, Little Red Wagons, and Rocket Ships

Written By: Mary Dudman, Soutron Global Training Services Manager, MLS


I can remember as a child getting the little red wagon out of the garage, filling it with an assortment of favorite books, an old blanket, maybe a peanut butter sandwich and a mason jar of lemonade and heading out with my siblings under the expansive weeping willow tree in the front yard to spend a Summer afternoon.  Oh, the stories we read, and the places we went, as we sat on the ground or rocked in the old wooden porch swing mounted on a branch of that tree.  Not only did the tree provide a wondrous place to imagine things, but the things we did as children nurtured that great love of “things to read” to take us places we might not otherwise go.  So, that little red wagon was our “library” and the outdoors was our world.

As we grew up, that little red wagon got full of different types of books… those World of Knowledge books, those Encyclopedia Americana volumes, and anything else we could grab to take out under that tree.

As we continued to grow, the library at school became our resource (our little red wagon) for things to read and learn from.

So… how did a library grow from just a little red wagon to the technological world we now know as “knowledge management”?  We went from pulling our own little library around behind us to finding ones others put together for us and moved right into the online rocket ship version.  But… how did that happen?


IBM Punched Cards

The library at Southern Illinois University used a remarkably modern approach of using IBM punched cards to facilitate the checkout of books. This was worlds ahead of pulling the card out of the book pocket at the back of the book to sign my name and address on the card. Those magical cards were whisked off in the night to the computer center and were processed on a wondrous IBM device.  Librarians there felt worlds ahead because things were automated.  Have you ever seen one of those punched cards?  You can read on Wikipedia about the history of “punched” cards (also sometimes known as IBM cards).  It’s funny to think now that that was advancement and was popular at times during the 20th century!


Card Catalogs

Did you ever stop to think about card catalogs and how far we’ve come from those fine pieces of beautiful wood furniture?  .

The one at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign for many years held the history of the entire library in those little wooden drawers!  There were cards in that catalog which were handwritten (I mean with the best penmanship you ever would see!) with fountain pens.  So, in those early days, not only was a librarian a “guardian of the universe”, but the librarian was required to have impeccable penmanship.

Their catalog was divided into separate categories of Author, Title, Subject, and sometimes Date of Publication cards. That meant that the librarian had to painstakingly reproduce the same card over and over again with a different header. That’s a lot of painstaking writing!

And did you know that sometimes, the subject headings on the cards had to be entered in red instead of standard black fountain pen ink?  The creation of those cards to be filed in the card catalog took a long time for sure, and then, there was the filing of those cards.


A Little History…

Without those cards, we knew nothing about the existence of certain resources within a library collection. According to a history of the University of Illinois Library, University Librarian Hugh Atkinson realized that a backlog of 1 million cards to file in the library card catalog drawers was an insurmountable task and began the process of automating the library after his arrival in 1976.  You can read about the history of one of the largest research libraries in the world on the web which delineates the history of the library at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and it will amaze you at the progress libraries and libraries have made.  On this same page, you’ll find information about the mechanics of maintaining a library (cards, etc.) as well as references to the library blog (now that’s a real contrast to the handwritten library card concept!).


A Little Nostalgia

NPR presented a Morning Edition segment in 2017 entitled:  “File This Under Nostalgia:  New Book Pays Tribute To The Library Card Catalog” which highlighted a recent book by Peter Devereaux entitled The Card Catalog: Books, Cards, and Literary Treasures.  This very interesting publication contains some stunning images of the card catalogs of yore (since there aren’t very many of them still around except in museums and antique stores!), as well as examples of handwritten catalog cards which will humble you.


Of Rocket Ships

So, now we’ve come to the “rocket ship” part of this discussion.  Today, we all expect the instant finding of almost everything, right at our fingertips.  We’re so spoiled at hopping on our computer, typing in a word or words, and receiving out-of-this-world instant gratification of our requests for information or knowledge.  That “rocket ship” evolved from that little red wagon, those impressive card catalogs and punched cards, into the PCs and laptops of today.

Modern knowledge management systems (such as the Soutron system) can offer you a way to make a rocket ship out of your little red wagon.  Soutron Global can provide solutions for your needs, whether they be a digital interface and location tool for your traditional printed materials, a storage and retrieval system for your archival materials, a showcase for your electronic or digital assets, or even an information skills storage and retrieval tool for your staff or your consultants in the form of a skills database for your roster of consultants.


And that’s where we are. We’ve gone from pulling our little red wagons filled with books to the modern rocket ship of knowledge management.  I hope you enjoy reading about some of the histories of libraries!  Knowing a bit about the past can make us excited about where we are today.  It can also keep us thinking forward about where this rocket ship will take us next!