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Nicholson Baker's 1994 gas attack on librarianship in The New Yorker saw most of us scurrying for cover. This essay clears the air on behalf of librarians. Excerpted from Shhhhhhh! Happens: Exorcising the Censor Within

If Libraries Mattered

It is yesterday.

J. David Lennerman introduces his next guest. "Denmark, something rotten in? Well, we're about to find out who cut the Jarlsberg. But, folks, you know, last week we had some great shows, but none was greater than the one with Knick Butcher, am I right or what?


"Now here's this guy, you know, I think he's just a staff writer for The New Yorker,

[He looks over at bandleader Paulford Schaefalis for verification; Paulford smiles blankly.]

"who's written this devastating article about how libraries are destroying our civilization by putting their catalogs on computer. Wow. What a story. It had me thinking the North Koreans are a bunch of weenies compared to these librarians.

"I mean, did you realize that with a computer we might not be able to find out when, let's say for example, the Harvard library added a book to its collection? Or, consider this, that we might not even know the initials of the person who cataloged the book? Ladies and gentlemen, this is serious stuff. I mean, we could recover from getting nuked--so what if we had a couple of extra fingers and a misshapen head? Look at Paulford, he gets by.

[LAUGHTER. Paulford smiles blankly.]

"But not knowing the initials of the cataloger of one of Harvard's books? Can you imagine?

[Camera pans to an audience stunned by the enormity of J. Dave's padded shoulders. Paulford shakes with suppressed laughter.]

"And if it weren't for Knick Butcher, nobody'd even know it was going on! In my book--which I'm having ghostwritten by Ernest Hemingway--he's a real Paul Revere, getting us up off our couch-potato butts to face an enemy few of us knew existed. One if by land, two if by Internet!

"And tonight, the enemy! Zola Hauk, c'mon in!"

[APPLAUSE. The band plays a few ragged bars of Darth Vader's theme from Star Wars while a slightly-built, middle-aged woman in a red evening gown enters, ascends the dais, shakes J. Dave's hand, and sits down next to him.]

J. Dave studies her ceremoniously, as if looking for something. "Funny," he speaks to the audience, "she doesn't look like Kim Il Sung."

[LAUGHTER. Paulford smiles blankly.]

Zola looks around in good-humored, mock embarrassment and, in a lightly-rhotic Southern accent, answers, "No, but I am like him in at least one respect. Neither he nor I ever had much Seoul."

[GROANS. Paulford smiles blankly.]

J. Dave does not waste the opportunity. "Maybe not, but from you I wouldn't mind getting a little Pyongyang."

[SILENCE at J. Dave's tasteless, farfetched pun. Paulford shakes with suppressed laughter.]

Zola retrieves the situation deftly. "Actually, J. Dave, you're not that kind of churl."

"Naah, Zola, I guess not," J. Dave says as he settles back into his well-padded shoulders. "Anyway, Zola, it's good to have you on the show. I want everyone to know that Zola and I go back a ways. She's the librarian in my hometown public library, but don't make the mistake of thinking that as a librarian she must be demure. She's the one who taught me that `Shhhhhh!' is the prefix of `it.' Her motto is `Speak softly and carry a big DICtionary.'"

[HOOTS from the audience. Paulford shakes with a suppressed yawn.]

Zola parries, "Y'all need to understand that J. Dave's the kid in all those `Madonna and Child' pictures, so can he help it if he thinks this way? I mean, with Madonna as a mother, you were probably the only kid ever whose first word was unprintable."

J. Dave reacts in mock protest, "Now that's not fair. I'm always a perfect gentleman. Wasn't I a perfect gentleman when we first met backstage? No, folks, I have only met Zola recently, but of course we all know about her heroism as a librarian in Tennessee, battling censors and bringing to justice hardened criminals who threaten to drag us into anarchy by not returning library books on time.

"But what else is she doing? Knick Butcher writes in The New Yorker that you and librarians like you are villains taking us down the rimprose pith of deconstruction."

[APPLAUSE at J. Dave's metaphor. J. Dave re-examines a cue card.]

"Wow, that was powerful," Zola says. "Since when did James Joyce start working for you? Rimprose pith. But you know what? That's exactly what Butcher wrote about libraries, rimprose--it doesn't go very deep, and it only gives you one end of the story. Plus, it feels good, so people think there's something to it. You want me to go on?"

"Please, please, don't stop, don't stop," moans J. Dave, imitating someone in the grip of sexual ecstasy. "Oh, sorry, Zola. Must've been the rimprose. In fact, though," and J. Dave turns to his audience for the full stop. "Folks, tonight we're going to do things a little differently. We thought you'd like to return to the good old days of popular entertainment, when writers like Charles Dickens and Mark Twain held forth for hours at a time, reading from their works. You will be amused and enlightened, I know, when we come back and hear Zola Hauk, America's favorite librarian, try to get above the rimprose of Knick Butcher. But right now, let's take a little break for a commercial."

[Paulford and the band cut a groove into something from Les Miserables, which would be a musical non sequitur if he weren't thinking that it's somehow connected with Charles Dickens.]

The commercials are for a popular line of clip-lights for bedtime reading, "for those nights when a book is better than sex;" a new device that keeps track of how much TV a kid watches per day and automatically turns the TV off and keeps it off when a pre-set threshold is reached, "because too much TV coats your brain with an indelible film of raspberry slushie;" and a recently-released Greatest Hits of the Radio Reader, "for those nights when a book is better than sex, but you've forgotten how to read."

Then the J. David Lennerman Show is back, but the mise-en-scene has changed so as to be evident that it's a pre-recorded clip. Zola Hauk is situated in a pulpit in the sanctuary of a Gothic chapel. J. Dave sits beside her glumly, hunkered down in his shoulder pads like a benched quarterback. Paulford and the band sit behind them in a choir loft, bathed in a colorful wash projected from a stained glass window that transforms them into a tableau vivant from the Sunday funnies.

Zola reads as follows:


Describing the frustrations of searching a computerized library catalog without knowing the proper commands, Knickerbockerson Butcher writes in a recent New Yorker article, "It's as if you walked up to a card catalogue you hadn't used in a while and weren't sure whether, in order to open a drawer, you were supposed to pull on the drawer handle, push on the drawer handle, twirl the brass end of the holding rod, or fart twice and sing `God Bless America' in a hoarse falsetto."

But, faced with a similar degree of ignorance about librarianship, Butcher is in no doubt as to what he should do. He farts. Not just twice, but in such a petomanic orgy of flatulence that before long you begin to realize that he's forgotten all about the patriotism and the hoarse falsetto and has settled instead for "Moon over Miami" on a contrabassoon concealed somewhere within his own anatomy.

Butcher is not alone in his predicament. Many people suffer from "library wind." In such cases the simple fact of standing in a silent range of bound volumes seems to trigger an overwhelming intestinal pressure relieved only by the same, somewhat inelegant, rhetorical device that so fouls the air of Butcher's article.

Butcher's specific case, however, could be the result of a sublimation of this physical urge, compounded by a distinct tendency toward exhibitionism. Most people of this subtype have found jobs working for Mad magazine, but I suppose it's possible that every now and then one pops up at a less sophomoric publication like The New Yorker, where his presence might be written off as an attempt to spike the editorial punch for a little N'Yawka bacchanale, a break for silliness after which everyone returns to his sensibilities.

I can see the editorial staff, all a little tipsy, hooting at some of Mr. Butcher's more sonorous emissions: The end of the card catalog represents a "national paroxysm of short-sightedness and anti-intellectualism in a class with the burning of the library at Alexandria." Much glee.

Or it is "a Dark Ages of scribalism." Guffaws.

Library administrators are book-hating "villains" being allowed to "work out their hostility toward printed history while the rest of us sleep." Rolling in the aisles.

The conceit of the "Velveteen Catalogue," derived from a children's book in which a stuffed rabbit becomes a live rabbit, transforms the "real catalogue" into a "realer art form." Tears of laughter.

Totally absurd! This guy's gotta be an artist! Such pootery! Such pooetry!

I might be mistaken. The New Yorker is after all not ordinarily the kind of publication that brings to mind the scene in Mel Brooks's "Blazing Saddles" in which cowboys around a campfire join in a rootin'-tootin' wind chorus fueled by a repast of the musical fruit. So it could be that Mr. Butcher actually intended to be serious, and these sulphurous blasts were just uncontrollable slips of the sphincter not intended to provoke merriment.

In either case, I'm lucky that beans and libraries do not stimulate in me the production of the kind of propellant that perfumes Butcher's article, even though (because?) the two major nutrients in my adult life have been those very things. I think this makes me less likely to associate stinkiness with libraries, and perhaps will allow me to clear the air on the subject that causes Butcher to squirm so.


It is tomorrow.

In another part of the country, Knickerbockerson Butcher is hard at work on another assignment for The New Yorker. He finds himself at the reference desk of a public library in Kingsport, TN. "The things I do for work," he thinks disgustedly as he waits for a librarian to materialize.

He finds it hard to believe that journalism has saddled him with the indignity of relying upon the services of a podunk public library, and an automated one at that.

He--the crusader of the card catalogue, the champion of riffled research, under whose irresistible, heroic thumb had melted dozens of academic demoiselles.

(Not to mention author of a book of essays entitled Fart Twice and Sing "God Bless America", which thank heavens had been spared bestsellerdom at the same time as it was recognized by book reviewers as "resonant with redolence," "a remarkable blast," and his favorite, because it had captured the complicated qualities of his prose in oenolingo, "A memorable blend! An overpowering bouquet that hangs with the authority of Limburger over a taste that is short, austere, gritty, hard, prickly, tart, but honest." As a beer fancier, he's not up on the technical meaning of all this, but it suggests an air of strength, which pleases him. It was only too bad that no one had used the word "sibylline.")

He--the enunciator of the Butcher Dictum, which asserts the rightful claim to superiority of the card catalogue over its computerized pretender, a claim that began with a fateful article in The New Yorker and that since has caused such an uproar in ivory towers that faculty senates across the country have called for a re-examination of their libraries' cataloguing practices (and a re-examination is a faculty senate's way of rolling up its sleeves and putting up its dukes).

And here He--cast into the wilds of Transhudsonian America to pursue a daunting quest for near-extinct, legendary musical instruments--has to subject himself to stenography in order to get at the truth. He is no clerk. He is an Artist, a Prophet, and what's more, a Bellelettrist. He refuses to abase himself to philistinism.


It is yesterday again.

Zola Hauk continues her lecture. J. Dave is rapt by the tassels on his loafers; Paulford and company nod from time to time, either in agreement or drowsiness, and sometimes both.

By the way, [Zola continues] lest anyone accuse me of philistinism, the reason I spell it "catalog" and not "catalogue" is that a library school professor informed me that the "ue" makes the word an unequivocal Anglicism, like "colour." Until that point, I had regarded the truncated word to mean an illustrated mercantile inventory unrelated to the hoary library file. I regarded the "ue" as in a sense like the abbreviation of a graduate degree following a name, a sign of scholarship. Even though I didn't think my prof was entirely correct, I nonetheless simplified my spelling of the word. Now, "catalogue" in an American publication looks like a spoiled brat in a juvenile sailor suit cocking a snook. Interesting how perceptions change.

That course influenced another change: It opened my eyes to a previously-concealed world of great interest, the world of cataloging. Butcher chokes on the "pickle" of computerized catalogs and tries to blame them on library schools enticing students away from the subject of cataloging. His proof is bizarre: In a library school card catalog, there appears to be more finger-dirt on the cards relating to subjects other than cataloging.

There are a couple of explanations more likely than Butcher's. Maybe students interested in cataloging are more hygienic. Or more likely is the explanation that students, being students and therefore possessed of a certain degree of ignorance, naturally gravitate at first to self-evidently "important" subjects like, in the library field, children's literature and censorship. As study and experience take hold, some of them will acquire a taste for the more exotic and recondite areas of the field, like cataloging. These suggest that Butcher's "dirt-band study" of a library school card catalog is vomitive data. No wonder he chokes on the pickle. His entire tracheo-gastro-intestinal system is a mess.

Back to the subject, I sympathize with the discomfiture caused Butcher by the spectacular public executions of card catalogs that he describes. The phenomenon reminds me of a "new music" concert I attended as a college student in the early 70's. One of the pieces performed that day consisted of the unmaking of an old spinet piano in rather a loose sonata-allegro manner. The exposition featured a sturdy trombonist who displayed a deft style with a sledgehammer; the development included other students who chopped strings with hatchets; after which the sledgehammer recapitulated amid episodes of continued chopping. After the final cutoff, I looked over at one of the professors of piano. He had gone quite pale, as if he had asked a crowd of savages for some food for his horse and ended up with his horse becoming food. What most impressed me was the stupidity of the pseudo-musical, high-minded address delivered by the composer/executioner before the event. The victim was not allowed any last words.

Not a fancier of this kind of public gore, I (one of Butcher's "villains," a library administrator) allowed my public library's card catalog to slip unseen into oblivion after a polite period of resting in state. It had been "closed"--i.e. not kept up-to-date since its replacement by a computerized counterpart--for some four or so years, when a renovation of the library building allowed us, in the course of vacating space within the building to allow for construction, to whisk the card catalog into "remote storage," a euphemism for a municipal charnel house of dearly-departed furniture.

The four years preceding the Stygian departure of the card cabinets confirmed something that librarians have long surmised: When it comes to signs, the reading public forgets how to read. During those years, we had festooned the cabinets with notices advising our patrons that we were not adding new cards to the card file. Yet the very presence of the cabinets seemed to blind many of the public to these notices ("Hmmm, there's something different about her. New haircut? New glasses? Lost weight? I'll just act like nothing's changed"). So we started to hear from patrons who couldn't believe that our most recent travel books were out-of-date, when in fact they weren't. The patrons had ignored the signs. They weren't looking in the right catalog.

And they wouldn't, as long as the cabinets remained. Oh, I'm exaggerating, of course. Many took to the computerized catalog like a dog to a box turtle with the big difference that they were able to get something out of it. I gave groups of senior citizens quick lessons on using the computerized catalog. For many of them, it was the first time they had used a computer. A sharper, quicker-learning bunch I have never met. Once they saw the advantage of the computer ("Hey, it even tells you if the book's checked out!"), they did not look back.

Still, a significant number of people, conditioned by years of experience mixed with a suspicion of computers, kept up their pilgrimage to the card cabinets. One perceptive patron, herself a school librarian and an advocate of computerization who knew the significance of "closing" the card catalog, adorned one of the cabinets with a dozen roses and a simple message: "You've done a good job. R.I.P." As long as it remained on display, however, the poor thing got no rest. People would come up to it and try to find the latest John Grisham or Danielle Steel, which is sort of like asking for an opinion on Thatcherism from the mummy of Jeremy Bentham.

Then, one day, the cabinets were gone. "Where's the card catalog?" we were asked, and in reply we would point to a computer terminal the screen of which displayed a computer-character "picture" of a card catalog cabinet. This phenomenon triggers Butcher's irritable vowel syndrome: the "physical catalogue has been replaced by an eager-beaver screenful of exclamation points and bracketed equal signs, as if to insist on equivalency, when in fact THERE IS NO EQUIVALENCY." (Emphasis Butcher's.)

On one thing, at least, Butcher's right. There is no equivalency. The computer catalog is much better.

It is not difficult to multiply the reasons why a well-designed computer catalog is a much more fertile field in which to browse than a card catalog. Chief among these reasons is the number of indices available. (What are indices? Well, I would've said "indexes" like any normal person, except that the Roman plural police would've hauled me in and given me the "tsk,tsk"-ing of my life.)

Let's say, for example, that I need to find the recordings in my library that include Schubert's setting of Franz Schober's "An die Musik." It so happens that the computer catalog includes an index of what are called contents notes. Among other uses, these notes list individual works within a compendium, like short story titles or song titles. Ordinarily, this sort of information cannot be retrieved through a card file. On the computer, I choose to do a contents search from a list of options and see all of my library's recordings of "An die Musik" within nanoseconds.

Another extremely useful index that Butcher shrugs off is the keyword index, which enables the library searcher to look up things by words that reside, in a title or subject, in a location other than first. Once I was preparing a talk about the library for the lunch hour civic club chittlin circuit and for inspiration I wanted to refer to an interesting essay in a book by a Romanian author whose name my forgetful mind just wouldn't dredge up, but it began with "C," or was it "K"? Like many Romanian names, it ended in "-cu." The only other thing I knew was that the title of the book included the word "swan," but it was not the first word. With only that much information, in a card catalog I would have faced a long, hard, and possibly fruitless search. On the computer, I dashed off a search for "swan" in the "title keyword" index, and, le voila, in the list of books with swan in the title was Andrei Codrescu's Craving for Swan.

Straight subject searches are fine if you're a specialist and always look in the same constellation of headings, or if you're a professional cataloger who knows the Library of Congress subject headings list like the Apostles' Creed. For the rest of us, however, it isn't always that easy. What would you look under if you want books on senior citizens? Does the word "aged" come to mind? That's the subject heading assigned to books of that nature by the Library of Congress uses (and my library follows their lead, which is another subject altogether). What would you do in this case in the card catalog if you, like most of the rest of us non-LC cataloging speakers of common usage, didn't happen to know the ordained subject heading? I don't know either, unless your library can afford to employ a Mother Teresa to write guide cards. On the computer catalog you can search the title keyword index under "senior" or "seniors" or "senior citizens" on the reasonable assumption that you will find a title with those words in it that will reveal the real subject heading, which you are then able to search.

The point is that searching for materials in a catalog is not always straightforward. When it comes to building a search, a computer catalog gives you a nice, big, deep sandbox and lots of sand. The card catalog makes you carry your own sand, if you can find it.

And what's all this cha-cha about TchaiTschaiCsaiChaikowvskiiyj (Gesundheit!)

Doesn't Butcher think that some people might be a little confused by this grouping of heterogeneous alphabetical incipits in a supposedly alphabetical file? Wouldn't it be better if, whenever the Parnassian catalogers of the Library of Congress decree a new transliteration, all of the records related to a certain Russian composer could be given one spelling? With a computer catalog this can be done through a process called "merging": all alternate spellings are merged into one, together with their records. In a card file, even if all the records are merged, the crowd of spellings remains, a disquieting gaggle of pretenders to the throne of rightness.

The actual focus of Butcher's piece, on which he should have concentrated, is the process of "retrospective conversion," or the transfer of an existing catalog from card to computer. Ongoing, day-to-day cataloging, in which new books are added to a collection, is very similar whether a library uses cards or computers. In both cases, typically, a library buys catalog records ready-made from God (the Library of Congress) or one of the angels, and the library makes a few modest changes. In general, the days of the cataloger who cooks up a record from scratch are long gone and have been since LC (Lib. of Cong.) got in the business of selling cards.

There is, however, one big difference between computerized and card cataloging. The "f" word: Filing. Card catalogs force you to do it. Computer catalogs do it for you. This is a difference of major proportions. Butcher describes the innocent li'l card catalog that "existed free..." Free? Did somebody wave a magic wand and--hey presto--it appeared? Card catalogs are manual labor HOGS. In my medium-sized library (c. 150,000 volumes) the backlog of uncataloged material--that is, books of relatively recent vintage that the public thirsted for--was 6,000 volumes and growing! Three full-time people could not keep up with the press of 5,000 new books a year, mostly because of the demands of filing. After computerization, two people cleared up the backlog within a year and now keep up with the demand. The third person filled a much-needed role as acquisitions librarian.

Getting back to what should have been the focus of Butcher's article, the problems of retrospective conversion, I must say that many of his points are valid. The OCLC system of building its database distributively (with contributions from all and sundry) and of using non-catalogers to match cards with computer records has not been for the best. But the conversion of my library's cards to computer was a local job that makes OCLC look like heaven. Yet when the time came to automate, I didn't hesitate. Allow me to explain my villainous behavior.

In creating a computer file from cards, what OCLC does is to take each card and match it to a computer record, if there is one; if there isn't, the OCLC person takes the card and enters its information onto a standard form called MARC (Butcher makes this sound like a big deal, but it's a lot easier than learning to play bridge). My library (before my time, I'm glad to say) did neither. In true pioneer spirit, it struck out on its own by creating its own computerized form. Somewhere near the outset it took a really wrong turn by establishing fixed fields (gasps of "Horrors!" and "How could they?"). A field on a computer record is simply the area next to a label; the area next to the "author" label is called the "author field," the one next to the "title" label is the "title field," etc. A fixed field puts barbed wire up at the end of the area and only lets a limited number of letters and numbers graze within it; an open field doesn't restrict things at all. Not only were the fields fixed, they were a little tight, which led to some Procrustean cataloging--lop off a title here, abbreviate a subject heading there. The result of this pioneering effort was a log cabin masquerading as the governor's mansion.

When I came along and saw the opportunity to automate using this database, I didn't hesitate. Why? For one thing, the governor's mansion in this state was at one time a log cabin--improvement would come. It would be gradual, but it would come (as I daresay the card catalog system went through stages of improvement), and MARC cataloging of current additions, together with the power of being able to merge old, inadequate entries into new, full entries, would permit this in a reasonable amount of time. A second reason, somewhat related, was the backlog mentioned above. A third reason was that the computerized database could be tied in with library circulation--checking out books, placing holds, charging fines--and the whole, labor-intensive manual system could be jettisoned and replaced by a more capable, more responsive computer system that would enable library staff to provide more efficient, better service.


It's tomorrow again.

When finally a librarian appears, Knick Butcher is not impressed. It is a man. A thin man with wire-rimmed glasses, dressed in clerical drab.

"Probably a complete stranger to cosmopolitan sophistication," thinks Butcher.

"May I help you?" the librarian asks with a smile.

"That remains to be seen," Butcher answers, hoping his scorn is showing. "I see that your library has one of these eager-beaver screenfuls of exclamation points," he says, trotting out a well-practiced phrase from his article, "and I would like to see a real catalogue."

"Hmm," says the librarian, stroking his chin, "do you mean a card catalog? Well, the computer does pretty much the same thing, only..."

"THERE IS NO EQUIVALENCY," Butcher interrupts in an irritable, unlibrarylike tone.

"Oh, well, you're right about that," says the librarian, speaking more softly as if to offset Butcher's loudness. "The computer's really a lot better because..."

"Sir," Butcher cuts in again, "I want your card catalogue, closed or not."

"Well, if you're looking for new stuff, you know," the librarian answers somewhat hedgingly, "it'd be like asking for an opinion of Thatcherism from the mummy of Jeremy Bentham." The librarian smiles at his improvisation.

Butcher is getting impatient. "I'm not looking for new STUFF," he hisses. "Just take me to your card catalogue."

The librarian, trained to know that library users almost never request what they really want, asks, "What kind of thing are you looking for?"

Butcher clenches and unclenches his jaw, trying to quell the spleen spewing into his brain. He mutes his voice, but speaks deliberately and firmly, "Excuse me, are you a man or a mule? I happen to know a little about library catalogues. I am well aware of the fact that you have crummy little terminals sitting around, but I was asking for a card catalogue in the hope that this library might be one of the few with enough sense to keep it, even though you Dark Age scribes thought you could replace it with computers. Apparently I am to be disappointed, which means I must try to do my research here without the hope of finding variable spellings of an author's name in the same place."

The librarian is dazed by the assault. "What do you mean?"

Butcher lets fly with an example from his article. "TchaiTschaiCsaiChaiKOWVskiiyj!"

"Bless you," says the librarian.

"That wasn't a sneeze." Butcher's tone drips with sarcasm. "Those were the heterogeneous alphabetical incipits of a single person's name. A card catalogue keeps them together. A computer catalog chains them to alphabetical order."

The librarian frowns quizzically in an effort to understand his cranky patron. "Well," he says, knitting together his thoughts and his brows, "We've merged ours. That is, we've changed them all so that there's just one form: Tchaikovsky. We've done that with all multiple author entries. Now they're all unified, with cross-references entered from the other possible spellings. That seems to work pretty well." As Butcher absorbs this, the librarian continues, "It's nice to talk to a layman who's interested in cataloging. Some people get sour on computers after a bad experience, which is too bad, because computers can be really useful. Let's say for example that you're looking for a book, but you only know one word in the title, and it's not the first word. Okay?"

Butcher squirms. He feels the walls closing in on him. He suddenly realizes he's trapped. His doctrine is about to get a good stomping. His only experience in this area has been with sympathetic academicians or with library bureaucrats easily cartooned as bunglers (bureaucrats in the contemporary mind bungle everything; they're bunglers even when they do a good job). But now he finds himself crossed by a real, blood-and-guts librarian who hasn't succumbed to his gambit of obnoxiousness and who has taken in at a glance some weakness in Butcher's position of which Butcher himself is unaware. Checked, Butcher is paralyzed.

Even worse, it is clear that fate has nudged him here into this cursed library, this online hell in this provincial purgatory. He is looking for a book (it is the sine qua non of his assignment), the unique copy of which is rumored to reside in this library. All Butcher knows of this book is one word in the title, and it's not the first word.


Yesterday yet again.

Back on the J. Dave show, the Nielsen ratings go through the roof as millions are tuning in to hear Zola Hauk give her defense of computerized catalogs. J. Dave is riveted to his seat. The band is chasing Paulford around the choir loft, trying to get the rivet-gun away from him.

[Zola continues] But the most important objection to Butcher's argument is that the card catalog never deserved its status as the holy of holies of the library. It and its icon should be discarded.

I say this with a full appreciation for cataloging. I have done original cataloging for a card catalog and a computer catalog, and I know what it's like to sketch a profile of a book or a CD so someone will be able to find it and use it. Cataloging as an intellectual process continues unchanged. Butcher does us a disservice to imply that in this way computer cataloging is somehow different from card cataloging.

The argument, then, is not really about cataloging. It is more that Butcher falls into the error of believing that the card catalog is more than a tool. To him it is somehow the soul of the library, and we are now damned to some kind of bibliographic torment (his words: "Self-inflicted on-line hell") because we have not prostrated ourselves before the almighty card catalog.

Butcher's superficial, reductionist notion partakes of the popular myth about the library--that it is congruent with the catalog. The falseness of this notion has been apparent for years. Did librarians say, "Behold, the card catalog!" when a poor sinner wanted to find an article from a magazine? Of course not, because it was somewhere else. Did we say, "Consult the card oracle!" when someone just wanted to browse the Civil War collection and couldn't remember the form of the subject heading canonized by the Library of Congress? No, we would refer them to that eighth wonder of the modern world, the Dewey Decimal Classification (the LC system is the 8.53rd wonder), where serendipity beckons. Did we say, "The answer is in the cards!" when someone asked for a core bibliography on TschaiTchaiChaikowvskiiyj? No, we led them into the academe of Grove's. Did we say "Too bad" when none of the books in the card catalog on a particular subject was on the shelf? No, a trained librarian guided the library user through a wide range of other alternatives. Did we say "Card forbid!" when someone asked for a book from another library?

No, and guess what, furthermore, is the extraordinary byproduct of some of the messy computer catalogs that Butcher describes? Something approaching a national library catalog, in which any librarian can look up any title and see who owns it, so that she may borrow it on behalf of her own patrons through the American miracle of interlibrary loan.

What did we have during the reign of the card catalog? Let's see, I think they used to throw darts at a map.

I do not want to make light of the problems of the huge libraries at Harvard and UC Berkeley that face the challenge of cleaning up their OCLC-converted catalogs. Part of the solution may lie in the fact that libraries with computerized records are able to think of performing inventories again by sending their shelvers out with hand-held computers, which is something my library has done with extraordinary success. This would at least account for any books that have no record.

In large libraries without a program of reviewing and correcting the catalog, fixing the errors in the computer records themselves will be difficult to accomplish. In my opinion, however, because the usefulness of other library resources serves as a corrective to a certain extent, this problem nowhere approaches the magnitude of the problem of mis-shelved books. It is important to remember that mis-shelved books were one of the major causes of the Dark Ages, and continue to threaten the future of Western Civilization. Butcher may yet discover that it's all a plot documented in some long-lost Protocols of the Elders of Multiculturalism.

Interestingly, Butcher, who writes "the function of a great library is to store obscure books," is fairly understanding of the occasional need of a great library to discard some among the obscure books it is supposed to store. However, he warns imperially "we are unlikely to agree that all copies of that book, in all libraries, private and public, ought to be rooted out and destroyed. We want the book to continue to exist somewhere, not to go extinct, because in some later ecosystem of knowledge it may be put to some surprising use..."

Let us imagine somewhere, at one of the great libraries, a fearful cataloger faced with deciding the fate of one of its more obscure denizens. She knows of the Butcher Dictum, which in a past year was used to secure the auto-da-fe of her predecessor, who had unwittingly discarded the last-known copy of Les plus grand pets de l'aulos de Marsyas, a collection of monotony vented by a town eccentric in northeast Tennessee.

The book whose fate she must decide at present is, she feels sure, no such rarity. But how can she know for sure? And the Butcher Dictum, limiting her to the use of her local card catalog, prevents her from knowing anything about the collections of other libraries.

Sure that no one is watching, she pulls from a concealed compartment beneath her desk a small computer. She connects to a computerized catalog, the International Underground Catalog, illegal since the Butcher Dictum re-established the card catalog. She and her colleagues have dared to keep it up surreptitiously because it is a catalog of all the books in all the libraries, public and private, in the world and thus offers some insurance against being burned for being bibliographically incorrect.

She finds her book listed in the catalog. There are several copies in the U.S., including a couple at two other colleges in town. She can weed the book. Good timing, too. She feels an urge. There is no toilet paper, due to the need to supply paper for card catalogs, so she will be able to put the pages of this book, Fart Twice and Sing "God Bless America" by Knickerbockerson Butcher, to use in some later ecosystem of knowledge.


It's tomorrow yet again.

"Wanna go ahead?" asks the librarian with a kind smile.

Butcher cranes his neck, and lays it across the chopping block. He nods to the executioner.

"Okay," the librarian begins, "now all we do is pick number 5 on the menu here, title keyword, and type in your word, which is `aulos,' and let's see what comes up, okay, the computer's found one title, and it is, let me bring it up here and we'll hope it's what you want. All right, Les plus grands pets de l'aulos de Marsyas by Jeb Aubois. See? It even recognized and overlooked the 'l-apostrophe' as a definite article! Kewl! Never mind that, though. Is this the book you need? If it is, the computer tells you that it's in the local history fiction section."

The blade falls. It cuts cleanly and neatly. Butcher's head falls into the wastepaper basket, from which it looks up at the smiling librarian.

"So, you're a writer, huh? Doing something on that book?" the librarian asks interestedly. "It's the only copy anywhere--an unpublished manuscript by one of our local, shall I say, prophets? Fiction, hard to categorize, but it's based on fact. Legend, rather.

"See, in this area there's rumored to be a hidden tribe of troglodytes descended from some fifth or sixth century European who somehow managed to find his way to America. I'm not talking about the Melungeons, who've been pretty much assimilated. These people are kind of a corporate Bigfoot. They have tribal rituals that revolve around the use of instruments unlike any found in this country--shawms, for example--with one exception. What people now call the Appalachian lap dulcimer is according to legend one of the mainstays of their culture.

"But, hey, listen to me yakking. You're the patron. How'd you find out about this book? I suppose OCLC, you know, the sort-of national online catalog?"

Butcher tries to shake his head, but it's hard to do detached from his body. He tries to say "word of mouth," but all that comes out is an unintelligible gurgle.

The librarian gives a little chuckle. "Sounds like you said you threw darts at a map. No need to explain. None of my business anyway," says the librarian. "Well, I'll leave you with it. I think you'll find the book right interesting. It involves a renegade member of the tribe who tries to impose a reactionary reform--what he supposes to be an Urfassung of their shawm--on his tribe, but he places too much emphasis on the thing rather than the idea, which violates a basic creed of the tribe, so of course God, along with some other gods, do him in. The same author has written a couple of other titles involving legendary instruments, but they should be right next to the aulos book. Can I help you with anything else?"

Butcher is full of questions. Who is the author? Is he still around? Why does he write in French? What does it mean that the book is supposedly based on fact? Can you get my head out of this wastepaper basket? Unable to speak, he manages to whistle, but what he intends to be "You Go to My Head" comes out "God Bless America."

At the same time, his decapitated body goes into sympathetic throes in a desperate effort to communicate and, in the fashion of the literary hero's last stand, gives a couple of blasts from his nether oliphant.

The librarian smiles. "Interesting you should ask. The Knick Butcher book, right? We did have a copy, but it was weeded after a year for lack of use. Then a local printer, which had done the book, gave us a couple thousand copies rejected by the publisher for some kind of minuscule flaw. Our director saw this as a cost-cutting opportunity, so she decided to recycle the paper. If you need to use the bathroom today, don't be thrown off by the signs on the doors. They say `New Ecosystem of Knowledge.' You'd have to read the book to understand."

The librarian walks away, smiling at the patron's conflation of the Butcher book with the Chanson de Roland, and leaving Knickerbockerson Butcher divided as to his next course of action.


Once more, it's tomorrow .

Zola Hauk is back at her library in Kingsport. She could've gone on home as soon as the flight arrived, but her visit to megalopolia has put her in the mood for cooking something with garbanzo beans in it, some kind of ethnic shotgun union in the American haute-meal tradition, like maybe a barbecued falafel and cole-slaw burrito. She wants to see what she can find in her library's collection of queasy cuisine cookbooks. It's never failed to fold in her imagination.

As she enters the library lobby, the familiar thud of the massive front door's closing resounds around her like a welcoming hug. She thinks of Lennerman's "Good to see ya!" greeting to his audience and decides that, for sincerity, her library's door has him beat all hollow.

The next thing she sees is her director, Jeb Aubois.

Zola, in fact, despite her entertainment persona, is not a library administrator (doesn't even have a library master's degree, but she's taken some classes). She is a library assistant, a reference librarian, a cataloger, a storyteller, a jill of all trades, but not a manager. Not officially, anyway. But she nonetheless got more than her share of managerial work shoved in her direction.

For good reason: Her director is a lightning rod for disasters and, for that matter, for lightning--he'd been struck once while on the library roof duplicating Franklin's kite experiment for a group of kids participating in a summer story hour. He'd arranged for a live video feed from the roof to the auditorium, where the kids were. They cheered when a bolt knocked out the TV for a second and then came back on to show Aubois lying on the ground a good ten feet from where he'd been standing. He was otherwise unhurt.

Usually he does his best to stay out of the way, even to the extent of asking Zola to represent the library staff at board and City council meetings so nothing bad will happen, but it doesn't seem to make much difference. As a result, he is frequently the bearer of bad tidings--fire in the stacks, flood in the archives, lice in the bathrooms, knifing in the lobby, bomb in the basement. He delivers his reports with an ironic smirk. He's able to keep on the sunny side in a hurricane. "Hey," the smirk says, "that's the way it goes."

Today he is wearing his "We have a problem" expression, a visage almost as frequent as his "How ya doin?" expression and distinguished from it only by the fact that for problems his smile does not show any teeth.

"Hello to you, too, Jeb," Zola says, trying to predict which of the four horsemen of the Apocalypse has stumbled into Aubois's snare.

"Have I got a good one for you this morning," Jeb says in the manner of someone dying to uncork the latest office fizz. "Someone has completely lost his head over the catalog."

"Just what I need. Probably another innocent recruit of that luddite Butcher. I just get in from spending the last 24 hours trying to quell this national paroxysm of anti-intellectualism, and what do I get? One of Butcher's poor lost sheep in my own library! How bad is it?"

"The worst I've seen. He's got his head in a wastepaper basket. I really hate it, too, because he's here to do some research into the subject of my books and who better than me to throw him off the scent?"

"In that case, the poor guy must really be addled." Publicly, Zola follows her mind and dismisses Jeb's story of the hidden tribe of East Tennessee as the work of an overheated imagination--after all, he publishes them as fiction and refuses to advance any historical or anthropological evidence. Privately, however, Zola's heart buys Jeb's arguments that fiction is truer than fact, and besides, a good reporter doesn't violate the confidentiality of informants, nor can a hidden tribe be a hidden tribe if too much is known about them.

"I do have a suggestion, and if you hadn't shown up I probably would have gone ahead with it. But since you're here, I probably ought to have your input." Jeb is really smiling now. His teeth are showing. Disaster looms.

Zola reads his mind. He wants to try the virtual card catalog. Jeb's invention, a virtual-reality setup (helmet with display goggles, 3D sound, and input gloves to allow "contact" between the subject and his projected surroundings), no one other than library staff has used it yet.

"Great idea, Jeb! Behavior mod for card fixators. But wait--shouldn't we get the patron to sign a consent agreement?"

"Zola," says Jeb, grinning hugely, "you know and I know that this is an emergency. A human mind is going to waste! We have no choice."


It is the last day of my life until now.

I think I must have gotten sick. I feel better now.

What's that music? Must be something going on outside. Sounds vaguely like a raga. Not exactly what I associate with this part of the country. It sure is piercing, like maybe somebody's torturing an oboe.

I never really noticed the inside of this library before. Kind of arty, sort of Bauhaus. The geometry jumps out at you. Aah, but look here. Well, well, well. I'll be a Rockwell in MOMA! If it isn't A CARD CATALOGUE! Oh, let me hug your sweet blonde cabinet, you beautiful piece of furniture, you. That librarian geek said there wasn't one here, and he tried to pilot me into the arms of some electronic siren, but I didn't listen. I stuck out my neck for you, and here you are, you great big pile of drawers.

At last I can get to work.

This catalogue is a lot bigger than you'd think a podunk library like this would have. This appears to be a big room, and it's full of cabinets. Now, let's see if this is a divided or unified catalogue. This drawer is labeled "Title Keyword Catalog: PESTILENCE - PETTIFOGGERY." Title keyword! What in the name of Cutter is going on here? A card catalogue of title keywords? Who do they have doing their cataloguing here, Mother Teresa? I really have underestimated this library. This may be the only place in the whole world with a card catalogue like this. No wonder this room is so huge, to have space for the index of all those keywords.

And I just happen to find myself at the right drawer. Today must be my lucky day. Okay, time to riffle. Pestilence, pesto, pests, pet, petal, petard, peter--man, these cards really riffle so easily it's almost as if they weren't there--petit, petite, petition, Petrarch, all the petris and petros, and finally pets.

Now what was that title? Les plus grands pets of something or other. "Greatest farts." I'd hate to think that's going to be the leitmotif of my life. I mean, putting it together with singing "God Bless America" as a metaphor for the arcana of on-line searching was a nice touch for that article, but to take that and make it the title of a book was the publisher's idea. Oh well. That's the way the cards riffle. I'm just doing my job, and right now my job is to follow the scent.

Boy, there sure are lots of books with "pets" in the title. Bighorn sheep as pets. Disinheriting pets. Fly-fishing with pets. Lodgepole needle miners as pets. Necrophagy and pets. Nonobjectivism for, old low franconian and, oubliettes for, parading with, the Plantagenets and, yes, yes, okay, voila! Les plus grands pets de l'aulos de Marsyas.

Dewey class number, author, pub date, collation--all present and accounted for. Now let me look at the bottom of the card to see what subject it's listed under. "Musical instruments - Tennessee - Legends." Hey, what's this? One of these tracings says "Book." That's crazy--a tracing tells what other cards connected with this work have been filed in the catalogue. This makes it sound like the whole book is in the card catalogue, which is obviously impossible. I'm going to find out what that means. Hey, wait! What's happening? Everything's dissolving... No, coming back together. Well, look here. The cabinet right next to me is labeled "Books," and this drawer says "Les plus grands pets." So, let's just open it up, and... Boy, that music sure's getting loud.

The library dissolves into the interior of a high-ceilinged cavern on the dirt floor of which burns a fire. Catalog cards paper the rock walls.

Around the fire sit twelve people. Their heads are inside woven wastepaper baskets. They wear capes stitched from catalog cards. One of them noodles loudly on a shawm.

Butcher stands before them. He feels as if he has been dropped into the pages of a fantasy. "Where the hell am I? I was just at the library, looking for a book."

Basket-head #1 answers, "This is it. You've been dropped into the pages of a fantasy."

"What do you mean, this is it?" asks Butcher.

Basket-head #2 says, "This is it. You're in it, and we're the characters of the book. When you arrived we were thinking of changing our name to the Elders of Multiculturalism. It's a marketing move motivated by the recent diversification of our product line. Welcome to our world."

"But that's impossible!"

"Maybe so, but here you are. Care for a barbecued garbanzo burrito? Our staple." The speaker, Basket-head #3, offers him one.

"No! I just want to get out of here! Where's the card catalogue?"

Basket-head #4 gestures, indicating the expanse of the cavern. "You're inside it. Or maybe beyond it."

"The card catalogue? I'm inside the card catalogue?"

"Don't get too excited," says Basket-head #5. "You know the catalog is just an index. You just went a step further and vanished into the tracings."

"It's never happened to me before," says Butcher, quizzical and alarmed.

Basket-head #6 shrugs his head-covering as he says, "It was just a matter of time. Cards, you know. People are always doing tricks with cards. I guess it was the next logical step in the development of the card catalog--get the reader to the book. Very Ranganathan."

"Ranga-what?" asks Butcher.

"Shiyali Ramamrita Ranganathan, the immortal who thought up colon classification and some basic principles of library service. You know, like every reader his book, every book its reader, every pubescent kid a Kama Sutra. And here you are, reaping the rewards," answers Basket-head #7, whose diction is not the best, even when there's no basket to muffle his voice.

"Colonic laceration? Raping the keywords? Get me out of here," says Butcher firmly.

"It's not easy. There's still a lot of user-friendliness lacking in the card catalog," says Basket-head #8.

"How do I do it? How? Tell me!" begs Butcher.

"You have to fart twice and sing `God Bless America' in a hoarse falsetto," answers Basket-head #9.

"Oh no. My leitmotif. I'm doomed. I can't," Butcher wails.

"What--fart or sing?" asks Basket-head #10.

"Well, the singing I could manage, but I just don't happen to have the wherewithal for the other part of it."

"Now would you like a barbecued garbanzo burrito?" asks Basket-head #11, offering Butcher a plate of burritos so neatly rolled that they resemble albino cigars.

Butcher eats and waits, miserable, listening to the spellbinding music. Finally, he holds up a finger for silence and performs the required ritual.

Basket-head #12, the shawmist, gives it a favorable review: "Very nice, Mr. Butcher. Very sibylline."

The scene fades to black.


It is a year from now.

Knick Butcher is back in print at The New Yorker with an article entitled "Petards: Are the Elders of Multiculturalism Blasting Apart Our Libraries?" It is well-written and readable, as always with Knick, and it contains a few choice phrases: "The Elders sit in a room filled with the stench of albino cigars and plot ways to turn the card catalogue into Pandora's box," and "The freedom of the reader to sketch his own characters after the model of the text is now threatened by tyrants who, more dictatorial than Disney and more insidious than Spielberg, would subvert this freedom with a viral vapor that eats away the fibers of our imaginations and our cards."

The only answer, Butcher says, is for libraries to "cleanse themselves of their card catalogues."

J. David Lennerman can't pass up the opportunity to have Zola back on his show, since, as he says, "librarians are so hot, and she's the hottest! And what about that Southern accent? It sends kudzu up my spine!"

Zola, of course, is nothing more than the picture of cool, articulate professionalism, despite the fact that she doesn't have a master's in library science.

In what appears on the show to be an afterthought, but which is really an arrangement worked out backstage just before, Zola is asked to go to Bangladesh with Paulford and the band, who, upon J. Dave's announcement of the tour, lunge into the huge crossover hit, the world-beat anthem popularized by Trinidad's Rocky Ranganathan and the Maroons, "Mi casa es su biblioteca."