Book Review: The Card Catalog: Books, Cards, and Literary Treasures

Card Catalog BookLibrary of Congress.  The Card Catalog:  Books, Cards, and Literary Treasures.  Foreword by Carla Hayden, Librarian of Congress.  San Francisco, CA:  Chronicle Books, 2017, ISBN: 9781452145402.

Amazon – Hardback, $22.48, Kindle, $9.20

Barnes and Noble    Hardback, $23.62, Nook $11.99


This book is for the true Old School bibliophile.  (It even has a Library of Congress pocket LC cardand book card pasted inside the front cover.  I guess they kept a few  boxes of cards and pockets deep in some vault at the Library of Congress or the Ft. Mead overflow area for just such an occasion.  The card is attached to the pocket with a plastic disc about the size of a quarter.)

The book lovingly traces the history and the significance of the card catalog beginning cuneformwith the original cuneiform clay tablet. “One tablet found near the Sumerian city of Nippur and dated around 2000 B.C. was clearly identified as a library catalog by renowned Sumerian history and language expert N. Kramer.  At just 2-1/2 by 1-1/2 in (6.5 by the tablet foreshadowed the use of small index cards in cataloging…”

It also talks about the Pinakes, catalog of the famous Library of Alexandria.  According to the book,  this library’s method of organizing information became the cornerstone that cataloging has used ever since.  The Alexandria’s first librarian, Zenodotus, developed this system to identify the huge scrolls of papyrus stacked haphazardly in piles.  “The scrolls were inventoried and then organized alphabetically with a tag affixed to the end indicating the author, title, and subject.”

The book then covers the Far and Middle East catalogs,  before continuing with medieval libraries and movable type.  During this period, books moved from scroll to codex. (between the 4th and 6th centuries).Codex_Petropolitanus_fols._164v-165r.jpg

The next chapter is devoted to the Enlightened Catalog  This occurred during the American  Revolution and the founding of the Library of Congress.  It does not acknowledge the Enlightenment’s French and English antecedents and their influence on the Americans but the beautiful illustrations and sample catalog cards do include several European titles.

The next chapter is “Constructing a Catalog:  The 3 x 5  Solution.”   “Harvard’s assistant librarian, Ezra Abbott, is credited  with creating the first modern card catalog designed for readers.  When Abbott introduced his catalog in the early 1860s, the ‘paper slip’ or card catalog was being used in Europe and a few American libraries, but the bound catalog was still prevalent.”  It was also during this period that  Cutter created a scheme that became the basis for the Library of Congress Classification system.  A bit later, Melville Dewey created his classification scheme, based “upon a controlled vocabulary of subject headings represented by numerical values.”  ALA was also founded during this period.  With the invention of the typewriter, many cards switched from handwritten to typed.  Again the chapter is very U.S-centric.

The chapter on the “Nation’s Library and Catalog:  A Marble House of Cards” follows.  The Smithsonian and the Library of Congress were competing to become the national library.  Following the Centennial celebrations in 1876, the number of books arriving at the Library of Congress exploded and the need for a second building was soon evident. “On a rainy November morning in 1897, the new Library of Congress opened its door to the public, ahead of schedule and under budget.”  Could any government building make that claim today?   With  Herbert Putnam as its new librarian, The Library of Congress developed the Library of Congress Subject Headings (LCSH) in 1899, began re-cataloging its older books on standard sized 7 x 13 cm cards, called for outside help from university and public libraries to catalog all the varying books, and began printing 7.5 by 12 cm library cards. These cards came with a hole punched in the bottom for the guard rods.

The last chapter deals with the Rise and the Fall of the Card Catalog.   Putnam had established the Cataloging Distribution Services  and the interlibrary loan system which moved its influence from just Congress’s Library.  ALA supported the use of LC (Library of Congress) as the central source of cataloging information.  LC began to drown in library cards. The rise of computer systems added a new nemesis for the traditional catalog production system. MARC, Machine-Readable Cataloging was launched in 1966. By the 1980s, major public and university libraries began removing their stacks of library catalogs.  This prompted the next big question:  what do you do with the beautiful catalogs and their millions of cards?

Since this book is created by the Library of Congress, its LC focus is easy to understand.  The illustrations are gorgeous and really add to the beauty and usefulness of this coffee table book. Many illustration sequences include the title page or a picture from the book and the accompanying print/and or handwritten catalog card. I would like to see someone do a companion piece to this topic that gives a bit more credit to what Europe and the world have added to the history of the catalog.