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Director's Column

PLSJC Director Alan Hall writes a weekly column discussing library and community news, history, and other interesting subjects.

The Card Catalog

By Alan Hall, Director, PLSJ
Publish Date - Sunday, August 14, 2011

In recent weeks, a number of letters and articles have appeared in library publications lamenting the end of the card catalog in libraries.


It is likely that the current generation of young people may not even know what a card catalog (the British spell it “catalogue”) was within a library.


A card catalog was a cabinet containing drawers which held 3 x 5 cards, arranged alphabetically that provided information relating to what books and materials were in the library collection.


The cards had a hole in the bottom center, which allowed a rod to prevent the cards from being accidentally dumped from the drawer.


The use of a “card catalog” dated back to the late 1700s in France, when the blank backs of confiscated playing cards were used to record the author, title, and subject of books in the national library.


The standard catalog listing of books remained in common use until the late 1800s when the growth of libraries required that something different is used to provide a record of the holdings of libraries.


A card catalog was a “work in progress” as cards to books in the collection could be added and removed from the drawers and books were added and removed.


The first cards were handwritten by librarians, trained to use ink pens and write clearly on the 3 x 5 cards.


In 1903, Melvil Dewey, the State Librarian of New York, stated that library school students needed to be “able to write a satisfactory library hand.”  Yes, he is the same person that developed the Dewey Decimal System for arranging books on library shelves.


The Library of Congress began providing pre-printed catalog cards in 1901, and the H. W. Wilson Co. began production of cards in 1938.


Local libraries began purchasing equipment to produce cards in-house, including special typewriters that could reproduce the same card format over and over.


In 1967, the Ohio College Library Center in Columbus began production of catalog cards using an electronic system.  The next 25 years saw libraries gradually switching to online systems as catalog and computer technology expanded.


Our card catalogs were closed and removed in 1993, and today only a few libraries actively maintain card catalogs.


Most librarians who worked during the era of card catalogs have a warm place in their hearts for the catalog and its thousands of cards.


I confess to that feeling, but I also realize that few people really knew how to use the card catalog.  Drawers full of cards printed in a language that only a librarian could love confused most people.


Many times, people would come to the desk with a card drawer in hand, and point to a card, and ask, “How do I find this book?”


The real shortfall of the card catalog was the fact that it told you what books were in the collection, but not if the book was available or checked in or out of the library.


Our catalogs only contained the collection within the building, not the holdings of the 78 library systems now in our automation system, and their 6 million holdings.


When our catalog was closed, I removed samples of various formats of cards, and placed them in a binder as a history of the catalog.  I also wrote a history of the cataloging methods of our library system.


To date, I don’t think that binder and its history have ever been used – maybe someday.


Looking at that card catalog history, I am glad that we don’t have to use that today!  In the 1980s, we would look for perhaps a hundred items a month that people requested.


Today, the computer system handles thousands of such requests each month, as well as the clerical work that accompanies all of this work.


Information management in 2011 is completely different from card catalog drawers of 1970.