Library Catalogs–Mostly Gone But Not Forgotten

card catalog-open drawerFor centuries, the library catalog was the eponymous symbol of a library.  It provided  one of the first taxonomies for library materials–Author, Title, Subject.  Although it has mostly been replaced by online catalogs and search engines such as Google, Bing, or Yahoo, it was the original analog search engine. (An old apothecary cabinet maybe it’s closest relative.)

Library History Buff traces the history of the card catalog back to November 1789 during the French revolution when inventory takers used the backs of old playing cards to “write down the bibliographic description of each confiscated book.”

The cards in the old card catalog were originally written by hand and were later typed.  That Library of Congress began the sale and distribution of pre-printed cards in 1901.

Recently the Library of Congress in collaboration with Chronicle Books published a new book called the Card Catalog:  Books, Cards, and Literary Treasures with foreword by Carla Hayden.Card-Catalog_flat-cover-768x917

The Washington Post wrote a nostalgic review of the new book.

I remember one time in a post library when a patron came in to complain that she literally could not find the book in the small wooden catalog.

Do you remember the days when library cards were first filed above the rod so that somebody else could check them?  I also remember the parents that did not recognize why it was a problem when their children gleefully threw all of those above-the-rod cards onto the floor in piles.   (These were the same children who loved to throw the JE books off the shelves.)  When we would mention it to the parents they gave us the blank, you’ve got to be kidding and/or crazy stare.

In November, 1982, American Libraries published an article entitled, 101
Uses for a Dead Catalog Contest.
The Journal is published by the American
Library Association.

What is your favorite card catalog story or memory?  Join in the conversation and share your favorite tale of the card catalog.  I remember in Library School (this was decades before they all became iSchools)., that I had to do a Skelly project. (The was research in the Social Sciences.  I chose Women in the Military.)  It was a laborious  task of over one hour to finally discover titles under United States–Armed Forces–Women.  By Service it was United States–Army (or Navy or Marine Corps)–Women.  Who would have guessed? Obviously not me.







2 thoughts on “Library Catalogs–Mostly Gone But Not Forgotten”

  1. As a non-librarian, the best card catalog stories I can offer are lame, compared to ones that the pros on the inside can tell. I do remember a story that appeared in the campus newspaper at Iowa State sometime during the 80s that is at least quirky. Apparently someone in the catalog department noticed that a card for some obscure physics text had the LC number for a totally unrelated book penciled in one corner. Curious, she went to the shelf to find the unrelated book, discovering that there was a different — also totally unrelated — LC number penciled inside the front cover. She went to that book, and then another, and another, following a chain of penciled LC numbers that eventually led back to the first one in the card catalog. I don’t remember whether they ever figured out what those numbers were for — a treasure hunt of some kind? a trail through someone’s private research? — but it would have been a nice plot element in a mystery novel, don’t you think?


  2. I never heard that case of the serial wrong LC numbers inside the front covers of books. That would have made an excellent mystery. Maybe some clever librarian author will take that up as a plot. I would have to really rack my brain to come up with something plausible. Thanks for sharing that story.


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