Once upon a time, before computers were everywhere, looking for a library book required real preparation. To have any hope of success, you needed to be ready with a title, author, or official Library of Congress “subject” in mind.
The catalog you consulted was a hefty piece of furniture filled with endless index cards. There was nowhere to type your stream-of-consciousness haiku, that eminently Google-able mush we all hastily deposit into online library catalog search fields now. No autocorrect options ever popped up to suggest what you might be looking for. That was the librarian’s job.
People spent time with these card catalogs. They spilled coffee on them. Pawed through with grubby fingers. Leaked ink or made stray marks with their pens. Sometimes, they even editorialized on cards by adding a comment or crossing out words. Paper card catalogs were imminently hack-able, no programming knowledge needed. Brevity, however, appears to have been an important skill – you might only have time to quickly scrawl a word or two without being noticed.
I often wish I could have been a librarian back in the heyday of card catalogs and so David Bunn’s Subliminal Messages, one of the many gems in our collection of artists’ books, holds a special appeal for me.
In a series of high-resolution scans, he presents noteworthy specimens from the discarded catalog of the Los Angeles Central Library. A progression of elegant pairs, one page will feature a card in its entirety while the next presents a full-page close-up of whatever mischief may have befallen it.
Ink smears between pages look like Rorschach tests. Two stray marks on the “Vampire” title cards look menacingly like teeth. On the card for a 1966 volume titled Mexican American youth: Forgotten youth at the crossroads, a simple editorial note appears: “Racist.”
The oscillation between close-up and long-view scans creates an intriguing tension between the anthropological nature of the project and the abstract beauty of marks on paper fibers. There are bleeds and blots, quick dashes of ink or mystery sauce.
Today’s online catalogs facilitate improved searching, but there are fewer twists and turns along the way — less commentary, fewer signs of encounter. Luckily, art can always help to rescue the physical and tactile from the force of forgetting.
– Madeline Veitch