Even if I weren’t a reference librarian, I would have a fondness for the card catalog. When I was introduced to the cabinets of small drawers filled with cards in my high school library, I enjoyed the ability to browse through the cards and discover new books to read or topics to explore. Until automated catalogs came along, the way to locate a book was to look it up in a card catalog, usually by title, author or subject. With the information on the card, you could then find your way to the book itself.
The Library of Congress both catalogs newly published books as well as shares that descriptive information with other libraries. For many decades, starting in 1901, the format the Library used to share that information was the catalog card. The process of creating, printing, organizing, storing and distributing those millions of cards took hundreds of staff at the Library of Congress and vast spaces, such as the ones shown below. (See all of those thousands of boxes on the shelves and tables? Full of catalog cards printed at the Library.)
And naturally, one of the largest card catalogs was in the Main Reading Room of the Library of Congress, as shown in the curved cabinets below:
You might be surprised to learn that we still sometimes use card catalogs in the Prints and Photographs Reading Room, where our cards typically lead to photographs, drawings and other visual materials, rather than books. While much of the content on the cards has been converted and added to our online catalog, some unique indices are still in use today by librarians and researchers alike.
The Library of Congress Cataloging Distribution Service continues to provide cataloging information to libraries in various ways, but its last catalog card was printed in 1997. Just last month, OCLC (Online Computer Library Center) ceased printing catalog cards, marking the end of an era.
- View a series of 1937 lantern slides showing the Journey of a Book (Voyage d’un livre) at the Library of Congress, which includes several card-based steps.
- Explore the interiors of various libraries through images found in the Prints and Photographs Division.
- Enjoy previous posts from two of our fellow Library of Congress blogs about the card catalog. From Inside Adams: Science Technology & Business: Pic of the Week: The Good Ole’ Card Catalog and from In Custodia Legis of the Law Library of Congress: Do You Remember How to Use a Card Catalog?