A few years ago, way back in the days before Crooked Timber, I wrote a post about Princeton’s old library-borrowing cards. A snippet:
When I was a grad student at Princeton, someone told me that (just like most libraries before computers) the books in Firestone library used to have a pocket inside the cover where the book’s borrowing record was kept on a card. When someone wanted the book from the library, the card would be removed and stamped with the date. Faculty and students then stamped their own name on the card or (either earlier, or instead) simply signed the card when they borrowed the book.
The computer catalog and University ID cards replaced this system. Books now have barcodes and the computer system holds a record of everyone’s borrowing. But Firestone has a huge number of volumes, so the library staff couldn’t simply stick the new barcodes in every one. Instead, they did it on demand. If an old book was borrowed under the new system for the first time, a barcode sticker would be affixed to its inside cover. The old card was thrown away.
Very occasionally, then, one would come across a book or journal that had been acquired by the library under the old system, had been borrowed a few times, but then lost popularity and just sat in the stacks. Inside the back pouch would be the old library card, with its list of dates, stamps and signatures on it.
The card shown here has a signature from John Rawls, from March 21st 1950. Beneath him is Jacob Viner, the economist. And there also is Gregory Vlastos, the ancient philosopher and ethicist. As it happens, this evening we’re having a philosopher stay with us for a night or two—one who collects and sells antiquarian books. This topic came up over dinner, and I mentioned my tiny card collection. The philosopher expressed an interest, so I fished them out from a box in the garage, where they’ve been (inside another box) unlooked at for several years. I only have four cards—perhaps I should have worked harder to pilfer Princeton’s treasure trove—but there on one of them (The Philosophical Quarterly v.6, 1956, 6000.7163), quite unexpectedly, just below the signature of Walter Kaufmann and just above the stamp of Gilbert Meilaender is a name that’s been in the news just today: S. A. Alito, ‘72. How odd.