Old oaken file

yellowed page has turned in the history of libraries. The familiar card catalogs are on their way out: In their stead will be book lists kept in -- surprise -- computers. Yesterday the New York Public Library at Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street ended its card catalog system and paved the way for the computerized one that will come after renovations. In recent years other libraries have at least partially phased out their card catalogs.

We realize it's progress. It will help beleaguered libraries save money. Once we get used to the change, we may even find it's a better way to look up our volumes.

But it won't be the same. Wherever most of us have lived, whatever the size of our libraries, we have felt the same way about the old catalog room.

It's been more than imposing, with its stacks of wooden file drawers, usually oak. It's also been oddly personal, with the smudged fingerprints of generations of readers indelibly stamped on its three-by-five cards. What readers were here before us?

Many of us have viewed our local library as Thomas Carlyle did: ``The true university of these days is a collection of books.'' We read them selectively, as Francis Bacon recommended: ``Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested.''

Even with the computer, of course, the library will be what it always has been: a great educator, and a source of pleasure.

But it is the card catalog that has always been our road map to the world of books. ----30----{et

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