The University of Michigan recently announced that it was finally getting rid of its card catalogue. This elicited many a response from librarians on some of the listservs I monitor who were sad to see it go. Most of the responses were emotional, revealing warm and fuzzy affection for the old system; but it led me to wonder what we are actually losing when we replaced cards with OPACs… and I think it has to do with browsing. The card system facilitated a type of browsing that we have not yet achieved online. It nicely complemented shelf browsing, but was not a substitute or virtual replacement for shelf browsing. Upon approaching a card catalogue you got an immediate sense of the scope of the collection and browsing within the cards did the same within sub-units of the collection.
At the risk of sounding too much like a change-fearing librarian myself, I am not saying that we can’t do this with online catalogues, just that we haven’t — and we certainly haven’t in libraries (that I know of…I would love to be proved wrong on this). Monica Bulger has a nice post on affinity-based browsing (and a follow up) and I would love to see an application of what she is talking about in an academic setting. It is still search-based (that is, it starts with a search) but could be an interesting way of providing new types of browsing in libraries.