Inquiring Minds: The Unheralded Story of the Card Catalog

Peter Devereaux, author of “The Card Catalog: Books, Cards and Literary Treasures.” Photo by Shawn Miller.

The library card catalog was one of the most versatile and durable technologies in history—a veritable road map for navigating a “wilderness of books”—says Peter Devereaux of the Library’s Publishing Office. His new book on the subject, “The Card Catalog: Books, Cards and Literary Treasures,” explores the history of this once-revolutionary system and celebrates literary gems and artifacts from Library of Congress collections.

This is a reprint of an interview with Devereaux that first appeared in the Library of Congress Gazette.

Why did you write this book?
This book was a great opportunity to tell the story about an unheralded, yet extremely important, part of libraries—the card catalog—one of the most versatile and durable technologies in history. I wanted people to see what a massive and unprecedented undertaking it was, so I hope the book sheds some light on its history and the continued importance of cataloging here at the Library of Congress.

What are the ancient roots of card catalogs?
When I started research for this book, I struggled a little with finding a starting point that made sense. After reading about Sumerian historian S. N. Kramer, I understood the story really started at the dawn of civilization. He clearly identified one cuneiform tablet, found near the ruins of Nippur and dated around 2000 B.C., as being used for cataloging purposes. At just 2½ by 1½ inches, the tablet foreshadowed the use of small index cards.

What system did libraries use just before the invention of the card catalog?
Most libraries used some form of a shelf list or bound catalog. The drawback was while the titles were listed in the order they appeared on the shelf, they were virtually useless if you wanted to search by author or subject. The title-author-subject access points that the card catalog affords was really a game changer.

Who were the key figures in the development of the card catalog?
Although there were some important contributions by librarians in Europe, on this side of the Atlantic, major developments were happening by the mid-1800s. They were led by Smithsonian librarian Charles Jewett, who advocated for centralized cataloging. At Harvard, Ezra Abbot created the first modern card catalog designed for readers. His associate, Charles Cutter, who became the librarian at the Boston Athenaeum in 1868, created a new scheme that later was the basis for the Library of Congress classification system. Though Cutter’s cataloging rules were adopted by many libraries, he is overshadowed by Melvil Dewey, whose approach to cataloging was based on a controlled vocabulary, represented by numerical values that could be subdivided by decimals.

How did the card catalog revolutionize libraries?
It really came down to providing quick, reliable access to a library’s collection. Before Dewey, Cutter and American Library Association libraries were essentially left to their own devices when it came to organizing their books. What you see emerge with the card catalog is not only an effective way to catalog a library but also a set a standards shared by most libraries.

What was role of Library of Congress in this?
It started to come together during Ainsworth Rand Spofford’s tenure as Librarian of Congress. With the copyright law of 1870, which required materials registered for copyright to be deposited with the Library, the collections started growing fast. The antiquated catalog and classification system dating back to Thomas Jefferson wasn’t able to keep up. After the opening of a new Library building, Herbert Putnam became Librarian in 1899, and J.C.M. Hanson and Charles Martel were appointed to lead the new cataloging division. They confronted a collection of more than 800,000 books, hardly any of which had been cataloged by subject. With a larger staff, catalogers created a new classification system, as well as integrating a new system of subject headings.

What was the impact of the Library’s decision to print and distribute cards to other libraries?
In 1901, when Putnam sent a memo to more than 400 libraries announcing the sale of its printed catalog cards, it was really a turning point for the greater library community. The card service was an immediate success, providing either complete sets or individual cards to thousands of public libraries at a reasonable cost. The mass distribution of catalog cards made the Library the standard bearer, allowing smaller libraries across the country to possess the same quality catalog as the greatest libraries in the world and really solidified the Library’s standing as the nation’s library.

In the book, you state that the card catalog was “destined from the start to collapse under its own weight.” Why?
By the 1950s, as the main card catalog at the Library surged to more than 9 million cards in 10,500 trays, staff grew increasingly concerned. In the annual report, the administration worried about “the space-consuming growth of the public card catalogue.” Many university and major public libraries were also facing a severe shortage of space as card catalogs continued to grow year after year.

Many librarians weren’t sad to say goodbye.  Why, and how did they bid farewell?
For librarians, there was a lot of excitement about a new technology, the computer, mixed with a little sadness about dumping the reliable and sturdy card catalog. In the 1970s, libraries nationwide embraced MARC and the computer catalog. Card catalogs quickly began to disappear. A few libraries held mock funerals. But the most interesting example I read about was one library that tied its cards to balloons, then let them float away.

What interesting tidbits did you learn that you didn’t know before?
What many consider the first attempt at a national library card catalog happened during the chaos of the French Revolution, which I find fascinating. In 1791, instructions were issued to local officials to begin cataloging libraries that had been confiscated from exiled or executed aristocrats. The method relied on playing cards, which then were blank on one side. Playing cards were a perfect choice: They were sturdy and roughly the same size, no matter what brand, and could easily be interfiled. Within three years, over a million cards were sent to overwhelmed offices in Paris.

“The Card Catalog,” published by the Library in association with Chronicle Books, is available in the Library of Congress shop or online.

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