Over the past decade, libraries have changed substantially, trading heavy wooden drawers filled with catalog cards for computers with digitized systems. But in the small, rural northern Maine town of Fort Kent, the card catalog is alive and well.
On a recent Friday afternoon at the Fort Kent Public Library, regulars Louis and Coco St. Clement were there for their weekly visit to return books and search for new titles. The retired couple travel 15 miles and across the international bridge into Maine from their home in St. Francois, New Brunswick, in search of things to read. And whenever they do, their books are stamped with return dates — just like all libraries used to do.
“I love it here,” Louis St. Clement said as he sat on the librarian’s front counter near her desk. “I like to come and give big problems to [the librarian] Michelle.”
While Coco St. Clement browsed the shelves, her husband was at the front desk discussing the book “Water For Elephants,” by Sarah Gruen. Louis St. Clement and librarian Michelle Raymond talked about the book’s plot but the conversation quickly turned to their sharing childhood memories of circuses and circus animals.
As far as Louis St. Clement is concerned, Raymond is better than any card catalog or computerized database.
“Look at how many books there are here,” he said. “She knows each and every one and where to find it.”
Fort Kent’s library isn’t alone though. For more than 100 years, wooden cabinets with drawers upon drawers containing paper cards were used by library patrons, students, researchers and bibliophiles to search for books by author, title or subject.
Janet McKenney, data coordinator for the Maine State Library, estimates around 25 of Maine’s 265 public libraries have not automated their collections and still rely on card catalogs. But that number continues to shrink.
“Libraries are really fighting for funding so anything they can do to be more efficient with tracking their circulation and usage is important,” she said. “They can generate reports that show usage to help them advocate for funding.”
Slow moving change
These days, libraries in Presque Isle, Houlton, Bangor and beyond handle their records and card catalogs digitally. Receipts take the place of the due-date stamp in the book. And someday, Fort Kent will join them. But it’s a slow-moving project to bring full automation to the small library.
The staff of two has spent the last two years entering each and every volume, video, recording and periodical into what will be a computerized database. And they have been doing it one publication at a time, by hand.
“It’s been a labor of love,” assistant librarian Cheryl Pelletier said. “At one point our computer crashed, so for a year we wrote all the information in notebooks to be entered into the computer later.”
It’s going to be worth it, according to McKenney, who believes when it comes to cataloging books, computerization has it over card catalogs.
“It connects your library with others on the same [computerized] system,” she said. “Your patrons can easily see what you have and can search your database from anywhere.”
It also makes internal projects such as generating circulation reports, tracking books and managing collections much easier, McKenney said.
In the meantime, the library’s one computer for patron uses can surf the internet but not access the library’s in-progress digital database. That connectivity, according to Pelletier, will come with a new computer once the entire collections are entered into the system.
This progress is inevitable.
Even if the Fort Kent library wanted to maintain its card system, it would be tricky. The cards, used in card catalogs, were once written by hand. But when printed cards became popularized, so did preprinted ones. They were available through a company called — ironically, perhaps — The Online Computer Library, creators of the first digital card catalog system. Over the course of 32 years, the company printed 1.9 billion cards. That stopped in 2015, when the company shipped its final batch of cards to a library in Bronxville, New York. Those libraries still using them are now left to make their own or begin phasing them out.
“You want me to make you one,” Pelletier said with a laugh, “I can do that for you.”
Except, of course, in towns like Fort Kent.
Heart of the community
It’s obvious Pelletier loves the library. She speaks of the children who come in for story hour and of the importance beyond books the library has in a small community. It’s where people come in out of the cold and talk books with fellow lovers of the written word. Like many rural parts of the state, it’s a place where like-minded folks can gather to share information or research topics related to their homesteads or farms.
McKenney admits the card catalogs maintain a certain draw for people in libraries such as Fort Kent’s.
“It’s nostalgia,” McKenney said. “They take you back to a different time when life was not so busy and stuff was not automated [and] you will see people stopping in to look at them.”
Automation is coming to the Fort Kent library. Its project to enter the library’s entire 25,000-plus collection into a database is almost complete. “Adult nonfiction” is the final category left to tackle and then the card catalog will likely be retired for good. In its place will be a dedicated computer for patrons to use for searches. They should be wrapping up by the end of the year, in Pelletier’s estimation.
In the meantime, patrons can access the work-in-progress digitized catalog on their own devices. Or they can use the trusty old card catalog.
Pelletier, who has been working at the Fort Kent library since 2008, remembers the days when she used the card catalog on a daily basis before anything was on the database.
“Yes, I use them, and no, I won’t miss them,” she said. “Some books can be really hard to track down with just the cards, and it’s going to be so much easier when it’s all on the computer.”
As for Louis St. Clement?
“I guess I won’t miss the card catalog that much,” he said with a grin. “Why would I? I have Michelle.”