Before the World Was Searchable

“Before there was Google, there was Joan’s vertical file.”

This is still my favorite thing that I read in the many condolence cards after my mother’s death.  It is so true.

My mother had a vertical file to be envied. So much hard work was represented in that collection of clippings and images that it would be impossible to calculate the time and effort spent. But what a project it was.

My mother was the high school librarian, and her library subscribed to many magazines. She kept five years of back issues, and when it came time to discard that sixth year, Mom and her pen would start.  She read the tables of contents of each magazine, and carefully noted which articles were destined for the VF.  She made certain that each article was labeled with the date, publication and page number (all the information you would need in a Chicago Manual of Style bibliography or footnote citation), and then she would begin with her scissors and her careful tearing technique.

Piles of magazines gave way to to  her patient and thorough gleaning of these periodicals.  The Nation, the Christian Science Monitor, Life, Time, Newsweek, Popular Science, Christian Century (my favorite pile to use as a nap pillow in the periodical room – shhh, don’t tell anyone), Car and Driver… and so many more, all were reduced to clippings, carefully labeled and filed by subject. From Rock Hudson to moon rocks, Mom kept a file on it.

The files grew and grew.  The “work room” became the home of the massive file cabinets that held the VF.  If you were writing a research paper and you were lucky enough to have a topic that was in the file, you were all set. I was lucky with a paper for American Government on the Supreme Court. Thanks, Mom!

It was the one regret that she had when she retired.  It was clear that the new librarian neither knew what a fabulous resource she had nor was planning on keeping it up.  In the past ten years Mom would always cause me to shake my head when she called me to help her find something on the web.  “You always find what you’re looking for.  I don’t know how you do it.”

What can I say, Mom. I learned from the best.  Just like rummaging in your vertical file.

(Image by klynslis

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Charlie Wheeler says:

    I never got to see behind the “curtain” in the library. I used the library as a place to hide my freshman year and then your mom helped me find some stuff on Neil Simon to write a paper my senior year. Needless to say, I never really used the library that much.

    1. Kate Tabor says:

      Well, I hid in the library, too – just in a different place. And I’ll bet that the paper on Neil Simon was aided and abetted by Joan’s Vertical File!

      Libraries are wonderful places – that’s what I think.

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