The Only Thing That Kept Us from Being Omnipotent Was the Card Catalogue System
Remembering the card catalogue with Travis Burchart
This chilly morning, my son wanted to take his hot chocolate to school. Because transit equals spillage, I poured his drink in a thermal container but one that had a hard plastic straw connected to the lid.
“I thought it was bad to drink hot liquids through a straw,” he said.
“What?” I answered. “Never heard that.”
“I’ll check the internet,” he said as he ran to the computer. His parting shot, before he sprinted out of the kitchen – “All questions of the universe can be answered on the internet.”
There was a time when all questions of the universe were subject to deep digging, the kind that got dirt under your nails and often discouraged you to the point of failure. As a kid, there was no computer in the family room, no magic stream of knowledge that fell under the command of searchable word fragments or the point-and-click of a magic Google button.
When I was a kid1, the questions of the universe were subject to a multistep and often demanding process:
Step 1: Get a ride to the library (assuming you were too poor to own all 30 volumes of Encyclopedia Britannica).
Step 2: Once at the library, go to the card catalogue cabinets and thumb through the rows and rows of yellowing file cards.
Step 3: Find your book‘s file card and write its call number on a scrap of paper.
Step 4: Explore the library’s jungle of shelves and book spines until you finally find and match the call number.
Step 5: Worst case scenario – the information you need is on microfiche. Go find the film and decipher the mystery known as the microfiche reader.
So many steps, to the point that many mysteries were left unanswered. I just didn’t have the time or patience to answer them all. But maybe that was part of the higher plan, that knowledge would be difficult in order to keep us (me) more human and less omnipotent.
Things have changed. Nowadays, knowledge is literally at our fingertips. For my son, the mysteries of the universe are easy. For him, it’s a simple process to know that drinking hot drinks from a straw increases the risk of mouth and tongue burns.
 I now sound like my father, who used to always say, “When I was a kid, I had to walk two miles through a foot of snow …” He said this for everything – the bus stop, the doctor, baseball practice.
photo by kyz
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