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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 End of Catalog Cards

By Alan Hall, Director, PLSJ
Publish Date - Sunday, January 3, 2016

In 1900, the Library of Congress announced that they would be opening a “print shop” filled with machines that would print sets of library catalog cards, those 3 x 5 paper cards with a hole in the bottom that fit in library catalog drawers with those rods that held them in place.


By 1971, the task of printing those cards passed to OCLC, Inc. in Columbus, where main frame computers formatted the work and printed the cards on high-speed printers that fed them into special boxes to ship them to libraries worldwide.


Librarians around the world took note of the PR Release by OCLC, Inc. dated Oct. 1, 2015 stating that “OCLC printed its last library catalog cards today; officially closing the book on what was once a familiar resource.”


The number of card sets produced in recent years has been on the decline as libraries moved to online catalogs, and the final set of cards belonged to some unnamed library probably not wanting to promote the fact that they still used those 3 x 5 cards to search their collection.


Actually, a later release pointed out that the last set of cards went to the Concordia College Library in Bronxville, NY, who had maintained their card catalog as simply a back-up to their online catalog.


OCLC, Inc. estimates that in their 44 years of production, they produced 1.9 billion cards with the peak year being 1985.


I witnessed the process many years ago during a librarian’s tour.  Enormous tape-drive computers were running in the background, with most of the noise coming from the high-speed printers that were producing the actual cards which chugged along an assembly line and were automatically boxed and labeled ready for shipment.


Libraries would often produce their own cards by typing or using local printing equipment, especially for donations or books of a short lifespan in the collection.


I assisted the Technical Services Dept. of a college library when I was a student there in the process of “dropping cards.”


It was performed every Monday morning.  All the catalog cards for the previous week’s books were in a card sorter, all alphabetized, and ready to be added to the catalog.


One person filed from A to M, and the other person did N to Z; and then the two staff would reverse directions and check the work of the other person and “drop the card” into the catalog and insert the rod.


Sounds rather archaic now, but it was simply the way-it-was-done in most libraries until the 1990s.


Many large public libraries and college libraries today have rooms filled with computers or seating that have unusual wood paneling; the telltale sign that it formerly houses their card catalog cabinets.


Most libraries ended the card catalog and started using computer catalogs on the same day.   Other libraries stopped adding to the card catalog and all new items were in the online catalog.


Our library system worked behind-the-scenes loading everything, and simply switched in 1993 to a computer generated catalog.


There was grumbling, and some moaning, and one old librarian that just couldn’t understand the need to switch (not me!), but in the end it was for the best for the public.


Surveys show that a much larger percentage of library users can actually use an online catalog.  Only 10 percent of library users had any idea how to use the former card catalog.


And of course, online catalogs can be used at home, or office and now on smart phones, and almost any electronic device the marketplace develops.


And the librarian’s secret?  The card catalog was always out-of-date as cards rarely got filed as fast as they needed to be.  “Lost cards” were in every catalog, cards that failed to get removed once a book was gone.  And those goofy subject entries that the public couldn’t figure out, COOKERY rather than COOKBOOKS.


Oh well, the chapter is now closed and the last old catalog cards are being used for scrap paper.