You've passed by them a few dozen times, hardly giving them a second glance. But have you ever wondered what exactly lies within the hundreds of green-bound volumes in the glass cases surrounding the atrium on Level 3?
A) They're blank. The library just purchased them so that we would have something pretty to put on those shelves, and our Dean's favorite color is green.
B) They house all of LMU's secrets, so if we told you we'd have to banish you to the library basement for all eternity. There's a reason those cabinets are locked!
C) The National Union Catalog, Pre-1956 Imprints: A Cumulative Author List Representing Library of Congress Printed Cards and Titles Reported by Other American Libraries, Compiled and Edited with the Cooperation of the Library of Congress and the National Union Catalog Subcommittee of the Resources Committee of the Resources and Technical Services Division, American Library Association.
The answer must be C, because I couldn't make up a title like that if I tried.
It may be hard to imagine the value of such a work now, since we are accustomed to having millions of resources on demand with just a few swift keystrokes. The 754 volume, 528,000 page, 13 million+ record National Union Catalog, also known as "Mansell" (after its publisher), took 14 years and $34 million to come to fruition. Organized alphabetically by author, each volume contains reproductions of catalog cards (anyone remember the card catalog?) representing holdings of major research libraries in the U.S.at the time, including NYPL, the Boston Library, and Harvard University Library. And once upon a time, before the advent of the electronic catalog, this massive set enabled libraries and their researchers to learn about the existence of materials published before 1956 held in libraries across the country. (Just think about that for a minute. Before these sets were published, your local library's holdings represented the only books that would be available to you as a researcher, and you would have had no other way of knowing that other works might exist without traveling to libraries that might be hundreds or thousands of miles away!)
Although our online catalog and resources like WorldCat have mostly rendered Mansell and others like it obsolete, it can still be a useful tool for researchers needing exhaustive searches for pre-1956 works and for catalogers of rare books. In fact, a 2005 study indicated that 27% of the records in Mansell still cannot be found in WorldCat. To quote our collection development librarian, perhaps Mansell is not a dinosaur, but a manatee.
I'm a librarian, and have never cracked one of the 754 volumes [she admits shamefully...] But the century-plus of work that have gone into this set and into library catalogs and databases around the world that still today enable library users to find materials ranging from the commonplace to the unique is awesome and inspiring, and the green volumes lining the atrium stand as a quiet but wondrous testimony to both the history and the continued future of research and discovery in libraries everywhere.
For additional information about Mansell and the history of the National Union Catalog, read this great article by Danelle Hall published in American Libraries in 2004. (LMU library no. needed for off-campus access.)