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New Book: Card Catalog’s History

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Jacket design by Brooke Johnson
Jacket design by Brooke Johnson

A new book exploring the history of the card catalog—that venerated chest of small drawers that contained the known universe—has been published by the Library of Congress in association with Chronicle Books.

The lavishly illustrated volume tells the story of libraries’ organizing approaches from the layout of papyrus scrolls at the Library of Alexandria, to playing cards with notes on the back that served librarians during the chaos of the French Revolution, to the doorstep of the digital information retrieval we use today. The card catalog evolved out of the need for a standardized system to manage rapidly expanding libraries, serving as both a repository for data and a search tool in a predigital age.

“The Card Catalog: Books, Cards, and Literary Treasures,” includes illustrations featuring the Library’s original catalog cards, many with fascinating annotations, and the covers of many familiar, beloved books in its collections. Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden contributed the foreword, declaring the card catalog “the gateway to the wonders of a library’s collection” in the 20th century.

“The Card Catalog” traces the catalog from its earliest precursors through the height of its popularity and eventual transition to online methods. The Library of Congress, after decades of reliance on a system originally devised by Thomas Jefferson for his own books, created its own card cataloging system as the 20th century began and for decades made its cards available to local public libraries nationwide. “The Card Catalog” features many of these original cards, both handwritten and typed, with notations and stamps reflecting the work of generations of librarians.

Paired with the cards are photographs of some of the great treasures in the Library’s collection, from Shakespeare’s First Folio and Walt Whitman’s corrections on a print of “O Captain! My Captain!” to first editions of “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” and “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

“The Card Catalog,” a 224-page hardcover book with more than 200 color illustrations, is available for $35 in the Library of Congress Shop, 10 First St. SE, Washington, DC, 20540-4985. Credit-card orders are taken at (888) 682-3557 or online.

Comments (6)

  1. I remember card catalogs in elementary school. How the times and technology has changed. Great memories of reading in the library as a young boy.

    Cary Michael Cox

  2. I have the most wonderful memories of working in the US Naval Academy Library while in high-school (after school – stay in school program). My work was shelving books and updating massive periodicals. When I went off to college, they let me work there in the summers. And I was allowed to file cards in the Card Catalog Files. It was glorious. I remember the head librarian telling me…you have something I can’t teach….CURIOSITY! It has stayed with me my whole life. (That was nearly 45 years ago.) Learning those cards has really helped me to organize things in my life well. Thanks for the article.

  3. When I worked at a county law library in Ohio, back in the 1990’s, the card catalog was pitched. The head of Technical Services decided she did not want to maintain it, as she assumed that most patrons would use the online catalog. Wrong. Many of the older legal patrons preferred the old card catalog because it was easier for them to read and faster to find information. The second issue was not having a backup to the online catalog when the power, internet or computer system was down. I learned long ago that some redundancies are worth it.

  4. It’s been an interesting time to be a librarian!

  5. Where i can find a book related to card catalog that free?

  6. Our city closed the old library and pitched everything the books, the cards from the card catalogs, everything. My dad would go through the dumpster looking for childrens books for my children. I wish I had asked him to bring me as many library cards as he could. My daughter has worked as an archivist and would love some of them in a frame.

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