Home > About > Bill Peak's Library Column > Not Huey or Louie but Dewey at the Talbot County Free Library
Remember the old days, before computers, when a trip to the library meant a visit to that most dreaded of beasts, the card catalogue? Of course the thing looked innocent enough, but you approached it fearfully, for you knew its unassuming exterior concealed a cruel and unforgiving heart. Pull out any one of the cabinet's P.O. Box-sized drawers and you found yourself looking at what seemed an impenetrable block of stiff, inflexible catalogue cards. Librarians in those days must have vied with one another to see who could cram the most cards into a single drawer.
And then, of course, came the really hard part. To find the card you were looking for required a card-catalogue-dance of the digits, your suddenly overlarge fingertips first tiptoeing across the top of the densely packed cards, estimating where the subject you were looking for might be, and then attempting to force one of its members into that resistant, semi-solid mass. To penetrate the cards like this, your fingers had to be as a strong as a stone carver's, as deft as a lace maker's, and (or so it seemed) inured to pain. For those of you too young to know, you must trust your elders here: nothing smarts like trying to jam a sensitive fingertip between two unyielding and surprisingly sharp card catalogue cards.
But having achieved the Sisyphean feat of inserting a digit where no digit should have to go, your work remained as yet far from done. For now, leaning over the drawer like an ostrich about to bury its head in the sand, you stared into the minuscule space opened up by your straining fingertips and tried as best you could to read the equally minuscule text so revealed. Inevitably (big sigh here), you discovered you had delved short or long of your goal. Which meant that carefully—ever so carefully lest your fingers lose the toehold they have fought so hard to gain—you began all over again, using this time the fingers of your free hand to try to pry apart two more cards (packed all the more tightly together by the pressure placed upon them by the fingers of that first hand still trying to hold its place in the drawer), hoping against hope that you will find yourself nearer your desired goal.
Eventually, inevitably, you took what pleasure you could from finding a card that described a book which, though not precisely what you were looking for, did at least address a related subject, and, throwing in the towel, you shoved the drawer back into the cabinet with just a tad more oomph than was really required. But here it was that the wonderful Dewey Decimal System came to your rescue, for the genius of Dewey was (and is) that it orders books on the library's shelves by subject. If you were hoping to find a book about the Battle of Waterloo and found one instead about Austerlitz, when you got to the location designated for that book, you found the shelf around it packed chock-a-block with books about Napoleon and his campaigns.
Of course nowadays the library's computer catalogue pretty much does this for you. You type “Waterloo” into its Quick Search box, and, before you can hit enter, a drop-down list of offerings appears that begins with “Waterloo, Battle of, Belgium, 1815.” Still, when you go to the shelf where the computer tells you books on this subject may be found, the old Dewey Decimal System demonstrates its genius yet again, for there, as before, you will find books lined up in perfect order not just about Waterloo, but about all the battles fought by one rather large ego packed into one rather small Corsican. The library's aisles embody the Dewey Decimal System: walking down any one of them is like walking through our computer catalogue itself: left and right the histories, cookbooks, legal studies, and field guides line up as if especially ordered for your pleasure. It is a browsing reader's heaven on earth.
Or at least it was until COVID-19 rendered a trip down one of those aisles impracticable. But now it is the turn of the library's website team to come to your rescue. This stuff is way above my pay grade, but somehow these cyber geniuses have managed to create what amounts to a virtual browsing experience for homebound patrons. Go to the library's website, scroll down to the picture of a hand holding the library's shelves on an iPhone, click on it, and you will be directed to a page that lists the types of materials available for check-out. Click on the category you're interested in, say, New Fiction, and—as if you had been plopped down in front of our New Fiction shelves in the library itself—a list appears of the latest books acquired for your enjoyment (accompanied by photos of their covers). You will also find links that will allow you to learn more about the book and, if it sounds interesting, place a hold on it.
For me, there are few pleasures equal to that of strolling—with no particular goal in mind—down a library's aisles, stopping here and there to investigate those titles that intrigue me. Right now, for the sake of our community's health, I can't do that ... but, thanks to our website team, I can come close from the safety of my own study using the Talbot County Free Library's new Browse @ Home feature. In every sense of the word, it is a lifesaver.
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