Cataloguing old-style

Guardbook catalogues

Guardbooks in the Catalogue Hall of the University Library

On September 1st a colleague pointed out to me that I am the sole surviving member of staff who catalogued exclusively for the Guardbook catalogue, the old catalogue which lines the walls of the room leading to the main Reading Room.  When I arrived fresh from library school in September 1977, all academic material was added to the Guardbook.  It was only with imprints dated 1978 onwards that the Library started to handle its intake differently, initially by creating a rather cumbersome microfiche catalogue, which then gave way to an online computer catalogue.

Nowadays, of course, most users pass by the Guardbook without a second glance, but for the shrinking number of people in the know, a great deal about the Library’s past history can be gleaned from its entries.  Today we work increasingly not just in a national but in an international context, using an international cataloguing code (RDA), and we strive to establish identical access points for an author wherever his or her works are catalogued.  Back in 1977 we used a set of cataloguing rules which were distinctively Cambridge’s own, and which had been much revised over the preceding decades.

Creating and printing catalogue entries used to be quite a ritual.  Today the generation of metadata is quite a sedentary occupation, but in the days of the Guardbook it was physically more demanding.  Repeated lifting up and down of heavy catalogue volumes could be quite hard on the wrists, and not an activity anyone wanted to do for long periods of time.  Nowadays new items can be added to the catalogue virtually instantaneously.  In the 1950s and early 1960s the catalogue entries were beautifully printed on high quality paper by Cambridge University Press.  In 1969 they started to be produced in-house – more quickly but in a rather inferior typeface and paper.  A team of junior staff, 4-5 strong at one point, spent most of their working week cutting out the catalogue slips and sticking them in the right place.  Two copies of the Guardbook were maintained – one for reader use, another for staff use.  Respacing entries on the page so that new titles could be incorporated was constantly ongoing.

Catalogue entries which were pristine when first created often gradually acquired more and more manuscript annotations, as headings and classmarks changed, and additional information was added.  It is still possible for me to put names and faces to those who made many of the handwritten amendments.  I remember how much work was needed when the decision was taken to move entries from Marie Henri Beyle to Stendhal, pseud., which rather surprisingly happened only in 1984.  The amendments all bear the immaculate clear handwriting of the former French specialist Valerie Hall.


Entries changed to Leningrad

Entries changed to Leningrad

Entries for corporate bodies relating to St Petersburg are still to be found at Leningrad, the form of entry at the time the Guardbook was closed, but if you scan the entries and pick out those on yellowing older paper, you can quickly identify from the manuscript annotations items which had once been entered at St Petersburg and at Petrograd.  Each entry also bears a printing number, incorporating in an abridged form the year when the catalogue entry was created.  Russian entries have perhaps been amended more than any others.  I was intrigued to note that the form of entry for Lenin, having initially been established as Vladimir Ilich Ulianov Lenin, was changed in 1929 to Nikolaĭ Lenin, pseud. Neither the Slavonic specialist nor I can now understand why.  The change to Vladimir Il’ich Lenin did not take place until 1962.

When the Guardbook was finally closed, the loss was much lamented by some readers, but it was a very imperfect beast.  The only subject access was for books about a named individual.  Entries were frequently pasted in the wrong place in the alphabetical sequence, errors which could go undetected for a long time, making access to the item virtually impossible. Slips were only pasted in, so they could fall out and be lost, though this was rare.  Wilful readers would occasionally take it into their heads to remove entries.  I remember one occasion when a whole page of entries on Karl Marx mysteriously disappeared.  Here the staff copy of the Guardbook came into its own, so that it was at least possible to reconstitute the missing entries.

David Lowe

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