Iowa Alumni Magazine | April 2006 | Features

Card Art

By Carol Wilcox

Long before Yahoo! and Google, before spiders crawled the Internet and the world was wired, the curious stood in front of the card catalog to begin their search for entertainment and information. They flipped through the cards, oftentimes discovering authors, titles, and subjects unknown to them before.

Millions of those 3x5" index cards faced extinction when University Libraries retired its card catalog more than a year ago, but several hundred of them have been saved—transformed into art by the cARTalog project, the brainchild of Kristin Baum, 95MA, a book conservator.

Inspired by a similar project at the San Francisco Public Library, Baum conceived an art show based on the index cards from the UI's card catalog. She shared her idea with other library staff and the project began to unfold. Sarah Andrews, 87BA, 03MA, a library assistant in acquisitions, invited members of the worldwide mail art community—people who create art that's delivered through the mail rather than sold or displayed—to participate, distributing some 3,000 cards to people in 12 countries, plus the U.S. Meanwhile, Baum got the word out through workshops and conferences.

As news spread, people began to request cards. A few didn't want to participate in the project per se, but they did want to express their feelings about these longstanding databases of library holdings.

"To me, as an old-timer, library card files and the cards within them have a magical quality," Marion Carson, 54MA, 04BLS, wrote. "They were portals to worlds and times beyond my reach as a youngster living in a small rural-oriented town."

Soon, the submissions began to pile up. Elementary school teachers used the cARTalog project in their classes. Others, usually attracted to the project because of their affection for libraries and books in general or for the University of Iowa in particular, worked independently, oftentimes gathering ephemera to reflect the text on their cards.

Iowa City librarian Kathy Mitchell, 73BA, 78MA, built a house of cards—a shrine to reading. Daniel S. Venne made an exquisite corpse book, so called because it consists of three parts, a head, torso, and feet. Sally Slaviero Orgren, 84BA, wove two ties with cards embedded—one for her father-in-law, a librarian, and one for the cARTalog exhibit. Marlene Russum Scott expressed the fate of the card catalog in a scientific specimen display for Charta Catalogus.

Sewn, stapled, painted, folded, stamped, and shellacked, the cards evolved into imaginative expressions far beyond their original purpose, evidence of the creative thinking that libraries so often inspire and the many diverse ideas they contain.