Before the Internet age, students rushing to find books for a last minute research project couldn’t just search MIRLYN.
A massive card catalog, located on the second floor of the Harlan Hatcher Graduate library, contained information about all library items across campus – over six million items by 1988. Students had to go to the library and sift through the drawers filled with index cards or call the library’s reference desk and ask librarians to search for them.
“How could it possibly have worked?” University librarian Barbara MacAdam asked. “It just did.”
Each individual library also had its own catalog. The Fine Arts library, for example, housed a catalog that only indexed materials in that building.
When the library got hold of a new item, librarians typed out information cards for each item. For organizational purposes, each item had at least three cards – one sorted by author, one sorted by title, and another sorted by subject heading. If an item had multiple authors or subjects, even more cards were created.
Though students may now balk at the complexity of the card catalog, MacAdam said back then, nobody questioned it.
The process for adding the cards into the catalog was strict. The rules were so stringent that librarians had extensive manuals that detailed ordering systems.
In the mid-1980s, the Shapiro Undergraduate Library purchased an electronic index of the massive PsycINFO journal collection. It was so revolutionary that many students lined up to use the search feature, MacAdam said. The entire index could be searched from a single computer, and the queue to use it was so long that librarians set out chairs for students to sit on while they waited.
In 1988, the University unveiled MIRLYN, a computerized database of all the libraries’ holdings. By June of 1991, every item in the University library system had been added to the database. According to the Bentley Historical Museum, the University was one of the first library systems in the world to digitally index its entire collection.
MacAdam said the Google book-scanning project could be the next step in library indexing – potentially making MIRLYN look as old-fashioned as index cards.
The University has kept the card catalog for historical value, MacAdam said. It can be found in the Graduate library’s basement, although it hasn’t been updated for two decades.