From Card Catalog to the Internet

The Retrospective Conversion Project at Preus Library, 1977-2009

When Preus Library opened its doors in 1969 the card catalog occupied prime real estate in the middle of the main floor. In 1976, under Head Librarian Oivind Hovde’s leadership, Preus Library became a member of OCLC (then named the Ohio College Library Center), a non-profit organization that managed the creation and development of a shared, computerized library catalog for libraries around the country and the world. As an OCLC member Preus Library began using the growing OCLC database of MARC (Machine Readable Cataloging) bibliographic records to catalog new materials and its card-printing service to procure catalog cards for new items. In order for other OCLC members to know what materials were held by Preus Library prior to 1977, and therefore to enable interlibrary loan for use of those items, it became necessary to begin the process of “retrospective conversion” – "retrocon." This involved systematically reviewing the library’s shelflist catalog, searching the OCLC database for each item and creating new records in OCLC when necessary. In short, physical cards were replaced by electronic records.

In July of 1988, as he prepared to step down as Head Librarian, Leigh Jordahl wrote a report that concluded that half of the library’s collection was now converted and our holdings for those items were represented in the OCLC database. He credited the hard work over several years of Duane Fenstermann, Ruth Remmen, Lindy Moeller, Ruth Reitan, Irene Johnson and Lois Henning, along with his own substantial efforts in this regard.

When Norma Hervey became Head Librarian in 1988, she led Preus Library into the era of online catalogs. The CARL (Colorado Alliance of Research Libraries) public online catalog system brought a new urgency to the need for ‘retrocon’ because unconverted items in our card catalog would not be reflected in the Library’s holdings in the new online catalog. For a number of years after the installation of CARL and its online catalog terminals, the library’s main floor still held a smaller version of the card catalog that contained cards for those items not yet in the CARL system. In 1992, Head Librarian Hervey reported on a grant survey that Preus Library still had 39,804 titles waiting to be converted. Under the leadership of Technical Services Librarian Bill Doering and the hard work of Bill Musser and Alice Schmidt that number continued to shrink throughout the early 1990s. Progress slowed somewhat, however, because only the more difficult and problematic items remained (19th century Norwegian language materials printed in the old Fraktur script, one-of-a-kind books comprised of collections of short articles and pamphlets bound together, etc.) and the priority for converting these items was low.

When Preus Library changed from the CARL System’s online catalog to the Innovative Interfaces Millennium system in 1998, the vast majority of its collection was reflected in the new online catalog and the OCLC database. There were still a few thousand items remaining, primarily materials housed in the DEPO area (Preus Library’s closed storage area for older and less frequently used materials) and those representing more complex problems. Cataloging Assistant Rene Donlan has been working steadily over the last decade on converting these low priority items as time allows. The story of retrospective conversion at Preus Library has been a great example of multiple generations of library staff working together to achieve an important goal that will serve users, both local and around the globe, well into the 21st century.