Tuesday, September 4, 2012

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Permanent Record began with a discarded file cabinet, so I tend to have a soft spot for file cabinets and their contents. The one you see pictured above was recently acquired by my longtime friend Tim Adams and his wife, Karen, who live in Chicago. I'll let Tim explain the story behind it:

Karen and I were at this antiques show held in a parking garage near our house, and we ended up purchasing an old filing cabinet of sorts that used to belong to WGN Radio [a major news/talk station in Chicago], containing thousands of individual index cards, one for each song they used to have in their library. I'd say most of the cards/songs date from the ’50s or ’60s, although there are some songs going back to the late ’40s from what I can tell.

The cabinet we bought was one of about 12 cabinets in all. These were divided into two sets of cabinets -- one sorted by song title, and one by artist. The couple that sold ours to us had taken some of the "title" drawers and given us a representative sampling of them from the alphabet, so there are probably another four or five cabinets with just the song titles, and probably six sorted by artist.

We haven't dug into the cards too much yet, but I did find some surprising entries, like early Alice Cooper, the Tubes, and Tom Tom Club. As I recall, WGN has been all talk since the ’70s, but maybe they still had a few shows that played songs, or they used them as drop-ins or something.

The couple that sold us the cabinet said they "knew a guy" who had some connection with the demolition of WGN's studio on Michigan Avenue (which apparently is being replaced with a restaurant), so that's how they ended up with the cabinets. The studio was right on the street, so you could look inside to see the DJs as they were working. Dusty Groove [a Chicago record store] bought the entire WGN record collection recently, but I guess they didn't want the cabinets.

Thankfully, the couple who sold it to us took all the drawers out and drove it over to our house. The thing probably weighs a couple hundred pounds fully assembled. We paid $600 for it -- riiiiight at the edge of what we would ever consider paying for something like this, but it was one of those once-in-a-lifetime finds, and it's a nice conversation piece, so....

Interesting! Man, cataloging a record library on index cards sounds almost primitive in our computerized era, no? The cards are really nice artifacts, too, full of underlining, annotations, and slight typewriter inconsistencies, all of which adds up to a nicely organic-feeling experience (for all of these, you can click to enlarge):

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Good stuff. Who typed these cards? Who kept track of the card library? Were most of the cards actually referred to at some point, or did they just sit there in the file drawers, waiting for the reference inquiry that never came?

And here's the best part: Against all odds, a little promotional tag that originally came with the file cabinet is still tied to one of the file drawer handles:

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"Built Like a Skyscraper" -- how great is that?! And I'd never heard the term "nuisance latch" before (sounds like a great band name). Big thanks to Tim and Karen for sharing their find.

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Update: A few hours after this post went live, I heard from my friend Liz Clayton (who, by coincidence, is also friends with Tim Adams, the guy who bought the file cabinet). She got very excited when she saw the tag hanging from the file drawer handle. "Oh!" she said. "Shaw-Walker! The kings of file cabinetry. Hang on..."

A few minutes later, she sent me this photo:

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"I found this (amazing) mug at a thrift store long ago and loved it for years without having any idea what it referred to," said Liz. "It wasn't until I met my friend Howard Akler, the Toronto author, who had a T-shirt of the Shaw-Walker logo, that I realized the man in the graphic was somehow completing an heroic feat of filing."


  1. Nicholson Baker's New Yorker piece on the history of card catalogs is good reading:
    [sub required]

  2. Heroic filing, is classic. Love it! I still remember being in college and working in a small radio station in town. I worked Phillies games and plug the right commercial kart in at the right time. The old radio equipment scattered around, the owner never tossed any thing. The history of the place in cast of equipment always fascinated me, still does to this day.

  3. I can't love this project hard enough. In my sleep I weep over lost ephemera. When it finds a loving home I feel a little peace. Thanks for sharing this. And I'm on a hunt for that coffee cup now.