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The Lost Art of Library Card Catalogues

The art of writing card catalogue entries may be dying, but they still tell us a lot about our data past.

Men working at linotype machines in the Card Division Printing Office of the Library of Congress (c. 1900-1920), from The Card Catalog: Books, Cards, and Literary Treasures by the Library of Congress, published by Chronicle Books 2017 (all images courtesy the Library of Congress)

One of the earliest found examples of the library card catalogue is a small tablet, dating to about 2,000 BCE, that emerged near the Sumerian city of Nippur in West Asia. Divided into two columns, the small artifact, less than three-inches wide, listed the titles of 62 works, including the Epic of Gilgamesh. While the basic format of the card catalogue, simple and straightforward, endured in the centuries following the creation of that dusty record, what varied were the systems established to organize these small but highly informative documents.

Cover of The Card Catalog: Books, Cards, and Literary Treasures by the Library of Congress, published by Chronicle Books 2017

The array of systems, from that of the Library of Alexandria to those of monastic libraries to the French Cataloguing Code of 1791 (which used playing cards to record titles) is chronicled in an opening essay of The Card Catalog: Books, Cards, and Literary Treasures, a book that was officially published today by The Library of Congress. Illustrated with hundreds of original cards from its holdings, the book delves primarily into the Library’s establishment and its own role in developing the modern card catalogue system that united libraries across America — and its fall, as accumulations of cards ate up precious real estate and computers shuffled into reading rooms. Some are handwritten in elegant script while others are printed, and many have edits penciled in, sometimes as a correction. While interesting windows into the past, catalogue cards aren’t the most visually compelling documents; so accompanying each of these text-heavy relics is the colorful cover of its associated book.

These cards are fun to flip through, particularly if you’re a bibliophile, with every notation speaking to the utter care given to organizing what would otherwise be literary chaos. For anyone who may have thought differently, The Card Catalog proves that card cataloguing, now a process of the past, was very serious and complicated business.

Card for Audubon’s The Birds of America; from Original Drawings, from The Card Catalog: Books, Cards, and Literary Treasures by the Library of Congress, published by Chronicle Books 2017

Card for Herman Melville’s Moby Dick; or, the Whale, from The Card Catalog: Books, Cards, and Literary Treasures by the Library of Congress, published by Chronicle Books 2017

When the Library of Congress first opened in 1800, it housed 740 volumes and three maps. Today, it has over 162 million volumes, about 32 million of which comprise catalogued books. Librarians spent decades figuring out how to best organize its constantly growing collections, which would render systems dated as their contents reflected new industries, and thus required new vocabularies. Heads butt over how to organize the stacks; casual rivalries even arose between librarians who had different visions. The Card Catalog spotlights the tenacity of Melvil Dewey (yes, of Dewey Decimal fame), for instance, who strove for years to fulfill his dream of creating a national standard of cards catalogues. Dewey even established a business known as the Library Bureau that provided all kinds of library supplies and furniture, essentially helping to at least standardize the appearances of libraries around the country, for better or for worse. With Thomas Edison, he also developed a script called Library Hand, a strict style of handwriting taught at library schools to promote neat and legible card writing.

Supply catalog from the Library Bureau (1902), from The Card Catalog: Books, Cards, and Literary Treasures by the Library of Congress, published by Chronicle Books 2017

The Library of Congress was instrumental to making Dewey’s fantasy — shared by many others — a reality, establishing by 1900 an entire cataloguing division with over 70 workers who focused on classifying, editing, organizing, and filing catalogue cards. It soon began distributing these to interested libraries around the country, becoming the standard-bearer for cards of the highest quality, in terms of both information and appearance. But while this system worked, it required physical storage — a problem solved by the introduction in 1966 of Henriette Avram’s Machine-Redable Cataloging (MARC), the world’s first automated cataloging system that converted inked information into computer data. On December 31, 1980, the Library of Congress’s Main Reading Room’s card catalogue was officially deemed “frozen,” with the last of cards written and filed away into dark oak cabinets.

Many libraries, unfortunately, disposed of their catalogues as computers replaced them. Some were creative in their methods: The Card Catalog recounts how one library in Maryland sent its lot off into the sky by attaching it to balloons; another even held a funeral for its cards. Those of the Library of Congress endure largely because many hold information that simply does not exist elsewhere, as not all data was transferred off the original records. You can still visit it today for research and thumb through the paper piles, which live on in those cabinets, still neatly organized by anonymous but dedicated hands.

Library of Congress Card Division (c. 1940), from The Card Catalog: Books, Cards, and Literary Treasures by the Library of Congress, published by Chronicle Books 2017
Supply catalog from the Library Bureau (1897-1920), from The Card Catalog: Books, Cards, and Literary Treasures by the Library of Congress, published by Chronicle Books 2017
French playing cards used to catalog books (18th century), from The Card Catalog: Books, Cards, and Literary Treasures by the Library of Congress, published by Chronicle Books 2017
Card for Washington Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, from The Card Catalog: Books, Cards, and Literary Treasures by the Library of Congress, published by Chronicle Books 2017

Card for John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, from The Card Catalog: Books, Cards, and Literary Treasures by the Library of Congress, published by Chronicle Books 2017

The Card Catalog is available through Amazon.

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