On Catalogs

My parents used to leave me at the public library for an hour. It was there I stared at a poster hung in the children’s section, showing what each hundred numbers meant. This was my introduction to the Dewey Decimal system. I was in awe at how every topic in life, the universe, and everything could fit within these 10 category brackets. But alas, they don’t. That was revealed when I asked, “Why are there books on suicide near language learning books?”. Much later, I discovered the field of library science, and I realized librarians curated non-fiction books to fit between 000 to 999.

Seed Catalog

I was fascinated with cataloging systems ever since. So it doesn’t come to anyone’s surprise at my obsession with the 358 page, encyclopedic catalog called “The Whole Seed Catalog from Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds.”

Each plant entry has a crips image, an item code, and a short description from the farmer on why you should grow this plant. Each image whispers in your ear, “this is what your garden can look like.” The curators determined the selection by the limited supply of Baker’s Creek, as well as compatibility with the North American climate. So even with the limited selection, it’s exhilarating to see what exotic or heirloom varietal lie with each page turn.

select page from seed catalog

The catalog has a lot of character. There are photographs of strange vegetable sculptures and children that could be the poster child for “Future Farmers of America”. I love it when you have someone’s personality injected into these catalogs. Counter that with the department store’s 600+ page catalog of generic items.

This same elation came to me as I flipped through the Cool Tools Catalog. Kevin Kelly, co-founder of Wired, published this catalog and helps run the website by the same name along with and a slew of editors. Each page is full of interesting gems about topics I wouldn’t have thought about, like world traveling to cartoons that help you learn. For most items, the reviewer has used the item and shared what use they got out of it. For all other items, they are not vetted for, but the the reviewer describes why the item is cool and why they want to buy it at a future date.

Cool Tools

The selection of oddities feel like the curators were scratching an informational rabbit hole. Why would I want books on beekeeping? Or tiny homes? Or astrology? Because alluring and voyeuristic, like looking through someone else’s grocery cart. It opens my curiosity and sometimes gets me to dig deeper.

Then there’s the catalog of mythic proportions to a machinist. The McMaster-Carr catalog. Every mechanical part you’d ever want appears in this tome. Over a thousand pages, this catalog has a limited print release. I found a copy at The Crucible in Oakland when I took a general machining class. Gears, nuts, bolts, screws, vinyl tubing, and much more. It has everything.

While that’s an incredible feat, McMaster-Carr has created an orderly website. While the website can’t show the catalog’s size and weight, it adds features to the website you can’t translate to a physical object. They share CAD files so you can integrate their products into your 3D models. They make ordering easy.

McMaster Website

Instead of looking at an index in the back of a paper catalog, you can locate any item with the search bar. You lose the unintended discoveries if you were flipping through the catalog. Same same, but different. What you gain is order to their catalog without having to flip through unnecessary details of all possible selections of items you don’t care about.

Filmstruck Website

I am concluding with Filmstruck, the new movie streaming service by TCM, in partnership with Criterion. One of Netflix’s challenges is providing the right content to an individual subscriber. Filmstruck’s solution is to catalog their films by curated themes, like “Classic Bollywood” and “A Smidgeon Of Religion”. And if those are not your flavor of curation, they also have typical genre categories. But you can spend more time viewing short movie descriptions than starting the movie, so let the cinephiles tell you what’s good.

Curation ties all of these catalogs together. Each catalog contextualizes and gives order to multitude of items. Thinking about this helps me think how to organize my work, from determining hierarchy in my code or organizing my thoughts in essays. Don’t think of catalogs are this passive thing we’re given. Think why they are being given to us.