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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.

20 Years since the Card Catalog

By Alan Hall, Director, PLSJ
Publish Date - Sunday, December 28, 2014

This year marked the 20th anniversary of the end of our card catalog.  There is now a generation or so that has no idea what a card catalog is or was, and how to even used such a creature to access a library collection.


Our card catalog disappeared over the time period of 1993-94 as online computer systems replaced the need for those 3 x 5 cards with a hole in the bottom, arranged in those large cabinets of drawers in most libraries.


The beginning of the card catalog can be traced to Paris in 1789 when books and manuscripts were brought to literary depots around the city and information was transferred to cards which were bundled and sent to the Bibliographie to form a catalog of the holdings of the city’s libraries.


In the United States, early libraries were arranged chronologically by the receipt of the books, and numbered as they were shelved.  As collections grew in size, the Accession Books that served as a guide to the collections became clumsy to use due to their growing size.


In 1876, Melvil Dewey, known as the inventor of the Dewey Decimal System, also aided in the establishment of the Library Bureau Company which constructed the standard card catalog unit for libraries.


Dewey, also Director of the New York State Library, developed the hand-written style of making catalog cards called, “The Library Hand.”  Students at the State University of New York were taught proper handwriting for catalog cards including legibility, speed, and uniformity as well as the correct type of ink, inkstands, and pens, penholders not to mention spacing, lettering, and figures.


By 1890, typewriters were replacing handwritten cards, supplemented in 1901 by the sales of machine-produced library cards by the Library of Congress.


In 1938, the H.W. Wilson Co. began selling catalog cards to libraries of all sizes helping speed up the process of getting new books to library shelves.


Machines of all shapes and sizes appeared on the market to allow local libraries to produce these cards and automate the process of cataloging books for a library collection.


The information on a card was the same for each card in a set for a book; author, title, publication, year and such, but a caption was added so that the book could be searched by many entries.


There were two major changes to library card production in the 1960s.  First, the Library of Congress developed the MARC format allowing for a standardized and machine readability of library records.  Secondly, the OCLC was established by the college libraries of Ohio in 1967 to allow cataloging information to be shared by machine, and the production of catalog cards worldwide began in Columbus.


The traditional card catalog in libraries began to disappear in the 1980s as Online Public Access Catalogs replaced the drawers of 3 x 5 cards


My library science education included a class on cataloging and how to load a MARC record.  We toured OCLC in Columbus to see the high-speed printers producing catalog cards which were boxed and shipped to the purchasing library.


The disadvantage of the card catalog was the time required to get the new book on the shelf and file the myriad of cards in the catalog as well as remove cards for books lost or damaged.  Online catalogs make the change as soon as the electronic record is entered.


Old Librarians are full of stories of card drawers that were accidentally dropped and the rod came out dumping hundreds of cards on the floor.  I remember a teenager who lost his Tootsie-Roll candy into a card drawer.


Card catalogs were extremely heavy, and libraries never moved them unless it was a permanent move.  Not to mention that only an estimated ten percent of people using a library had any idea how to use a card catalog.


I confess to having a warm, fuzzy feeling for the card catalog, and I confess to making a scrapbook of some of the card sets from our catalog when it closed, but no one has ever looked at it since then.


Today people use our catalog from home and office, and across the nation; something that could never have happened with the old card catalog.


Today’s terminology has changed to cataloging editors, data load, global editing, with instant access online.  I think Melvil Dewey would be pleased with the progress that has been made in libraries today, using the roots he established years ago.