Library Blog

A Cataloger’s Thoughts Upon Retiring, or, Has it Really Been Forty Years?

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

...Not forty years at the New York Society Library, I hasten to add; I’ve only been here for eleven. But as I was going through my files here, it occurred to me that it was in the summer of 1978 that I graduated from library school. I should have been done by the end of spring quarter, but I had to spend the summer taking the requisite class in computer programming: PL-1, for those of you old enough to have heard of that. It entailed feeding a giant machine a set of carefully keypunched cards.Just one typo would result in newspaper-sized printouts that read ERROR, ERROR, ERROR. It was easily the most useless class I’ve ever taken, as I didn’t work in a library with a computer until the mid-1980s, by which time the technology had changed a bit.

And of course the technology of cataloging was changing then as well. Although I wasn’t yet a cataloger, I was a daily library user, having gone back to school yet again, this time in U.S. history. I still remember what a treat it was to go from searching through drawers of cards, holding my place in a drawer with one hand while scrawling down author, title, and call number on an index card with the other, to sitting at a terminal, browsing records electronically with both hands free. Liberation! The people who get the most teary-eyed and nostalgic for card catalogs are invariably the people who used them the least.

Over these last forty years, I’ve worked in a couple of academic libraries, the library of a historical society, a large research library, and finally here, which has been by far the most consistently enjoyable of my workplaces. As a cataloger, creating the online catalog records for the Hammond Collection and the Winthrop Collection was personally satisfying. Working on the Hammond Collection revealed that our Library holds the only known extant copy of about a dozen titles.Cataloging John Winthrop’s books was not only fascinating (what’s not to like about alchemy?) but a real challenge, as many of them are in Latin and 17th-century German and Dutch, and the few catalog records for them in OCLC are skeletal. A few of their pages:

Selected Winthrop Collection title pages

But for me, what’s made the Society Library a truly special place to work is its staff. It’s unusual to find yourself in a place that’s amply stocked with self-starters and people who not only “get it” about being helpful to their fellow workers, as well as to the Library’s patrons, but actively enjoy it. The cast changes over time, but the work ethic and collegiality remain consistent. Unless or until you’ve worked in a variety of places, you can’t understand how rare that is.

A lot of you have heard me tell this story before, but I’ll share it again here, as it’s my most enduring memory of working at the Society Library. In late 2008 I lost my much-loved younger brother to cancer. Nine days later, the mother of Ingrid Richter, the head of the systems department at the time, died unexpectedly. As it happened, Ingrid and I shared a birth date. It was a common practice then, and I hope it will revive/continue, that a group would go out together after work to celebrate a birthday. For Ingrid’s and my birthday in May 2009, almost all of the entire staff came out with us, including many people who usually didn’t take part in these gatherings. It touched me deeply then and it still does, as it was clear that this particular event was not primarily about the birthdays.

I feel very lucky to have landed here and I’m sorry to be leaving, even as I look forward to sleeping late every morning. The beautiful building and the eclectic (and slightly idiosyncratic) holdings are a large part of our Library’s appeal, but it’s the people we interact with daily that make it unique.

Head of Cataloging Laura O'Keefe (shown at upper left in our rare book reading room) retires at the end of May.

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