Flipping through the Card Catalog

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.

Washington, D.C. Jewal Mazique [i.e. Jewel] cataloging in the Library of Congress. Photo by John Collier, Winter 1942. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/fsa.8d02860

Washington, D.C. Jewal Mazique [i.e. Jewel] cataloging in the Library of Congress. Photo by John Collier, Winter 1942. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/fsa.8d02860

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.)

Library of Congress. Card Division. General view. Photo by Underwood & Underwood, 1919 or later. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3b08445

Library of Congress. Card Division. General view. Photo by Underwood & Underwood, 1919 or later. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3b08445

People working in card distribution room of the Card Division, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. Photo , between 1900 and 1920. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3c20200

People working in card distribution room of the Card Division, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. Photo , between 1900 and 1920. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3c20200

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:

Vue partielle du catalogue public. Lantern slide showing the card catalog in the Main Reading Room at the Library of Congress, 1937. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.37906

Vue partielle du catalogue public. Lantern slide showing the card catalog in the Main Reading Room at the Library of Congress, 1937. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.37906

[Divisional Catalog, Prints and Photographs Reading Room, Library of Congress.] Photo by Kristi Finefield, 3 November 2015.

[Divisional Catalog, Prints and Photographs Reading Room, Library of Congress.] Photo by Kristi Finefield, 3 November 2015.

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.

[Card 4393 from Hine Caption Shelflist in Prints and Photographs Reading Room, Library of Congress.] The text from this card and corresponding photo are now online: <a href="//hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/nclc.00442">Topping tobacco. Photo by Lewis Hine, 1916 August 5.</a>

[Card 4393 from Hine Caption Shelflist in Prints and Photographs Reading Room, Library of Congress.] Photo by Kristi Finefield, 4 November 2015. The text from this card and corresponding photo are now online: Topping tobacco. Photo by Lewis Hine, 1916 August 5.

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3 Comments

  1. Maria
    November 5, 2015 at 9:44 am

    I love these and there is nothing better than using your tactile senses to fully appreciate a process. In fact, if we look back to ourselves as babies or toddlers, our tactile sense was so very important to fully learning. Thanks for the memories.

  2. Jenny Groome
    November 5, 2015 at 11:52 am

    I didn’t like when the cards would get grubby and the library wouldn’t replace them.
    That’s why I prefer shelftlist cards for scrap paper and paper crafts – handled much less.

  3. Celia
    November 5, 2015 at 11:33 pm

    I like my computer but there is nothing like the card catalog. Author, title, subject! My mother was a librarian back in the day and I spent hours under her desk reading books. Fondest memories are of time spent in libraries.

    Thank you for this!

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