At the Library: Wandering the stacks virtually

By John Maruskin

Sometimes I miss the card catalog. The wooden one with drawers and, well, cards. But, let’s face it, these days libraries contain so many books most would need separate buildings to house catalogs, and all the forests of the Pacific Northwest would be decimated to create manila cards.

OPAC’s are more efficient, effective and environmentally sound.  

What I really miss about card catalogs is their serendipity. The pleasures of finding, while flipping through entries toward an exact card, another, unexpected treasure. Those finds were exciting moments of magic.

You can duplicate that experience with online catalogs using two techniques: Book Ching, the bibliophile’s practice of finding clues by randomly flipping open a book; and, intuition. What, you ask skeptically, can intuition have to do with finding a book? Everything, when you don’t know what you want. 

Joyce Saricks, the ALA’s guru of Reader Advisory, recommended intuition. When stumped for a recommendation, she just stood in the middle of the library and let her intuition guide her. Jedi’s call that using the Force. Librarians call it “total presence in the stacks.”

To do this with the Clark County Public Library online catalog, go to and click on the Catalog tab. Set your search for Keywords.  

Then, grab a random book, open it to any page, enter the first word you see in the Library catalog search box and search.

For example: A keyword search for “yes,” (how Molly Bloom) and a scroll through my list of titles led me to the CCPL title “Americana the Beautiful : Mid-Century Culture in Kodachrome,” by Phoenix Charles (call # 973.92 Phoe). I’ve got a yen for kitsch, what can I say.

I investigated the book and the author by clicking on the title link. The record told me: 

“Here in 144 color pages, with more than 200 color slides, Charles Phoenix tells the story of an era in American history — the Space Age, the Jell-O Salad Days, the Prom Time… yes, indeed, the Mid-Century. A little kitsch here, a lotta love there, some sadness, some joy and most of all, a rollicking good time.”

Interesting. I wanted to learn more. I Googled Charles Phoenix, and Wikipedia told me: “Mid-century pop culture expert, Charles Phoenix is a performer, author, explorer and collector celebrating classic and kitschy American life and style. He is known for his spirited live ‘slide show’ performances, classic car JOYRIDE videos.”

“Joyride videos.” A latent gearhead, I was compelled to find those on Youtube and one of them featured a 1959 Corvette (incidentally, the first car I ever drove, at the age of 12) which had been owned by — ready — The Lone Ranger!

As you can see, using an online OPAC and supplementing it with interactive searching is a boatload of fun and a wonderfully serendipitous way to while away some quarantine time. It’s just like in the old days when kids had to make up their own fun.

Further searches led me to “Picasso at the Lapin Agile,” by Steve Martin (call # 812.54 Mart). A play in which Einstein and Picasso discuss art and science with an avatar of Elvis. And, “What if: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions” like, what would happen if you tried to hit a baseball traveling at 90% of the speed of light-(by Randall Munroe, the creator of the mind boggling comic strip, xkcd, call #500 Munr).

The Talking Heads sang, “We got computers, we’re tapping phone lines.” As a librarian I recommend finding books you never thought of instead.

Speaking of the speed of light, did you know you can measure it using a microwave oven and mini-marshmallows? It’s true. Find out how at

When you’re not at home finding swell books, wear your mask, social distance and wash your hands frequently. Someday we’ll all be back in the stacks and we want you to be present there, totally.

John Maruskin is director of adult services at the Clark County Public Library. He can be reached at