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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, September 24, 2017


I still call it the “Card Catalog,” as it was the guide to any public library for a century.  Today it is the “Online Catalog” in electronic format and it provides the access to today’s public library.


Libraries of the 19th Century that were open-to-the-public struggled to figure out a way to provide a guide to their book collections so the public could tell which books were in the library collection.


Earliest efforts found libraries placing books on the shelve in numeric order, 1-2-3 and so on, with each book recorded in a ledger so people could look at the listing and select a book.


The librarian could add new books, but removing books due to damage and wear was difficult as the whole collection had to be shifted.


By the 1870s, a man named Melvil Dewey was a professional librarian working with colleges to develop a better system; which resulted in the card catalog which was the backbone of library access for over a century.


The 3 x 5 cards could be added and removed easier than the ledger book, quickly updating book access.


By the 1920s, cards were being mass produced by the Library of Congress and sold to libraries nationwide.  Later, OCLC in Columbus sold cards, taking over the work that LC had done for years.


A format for electronic files was developed in 1970 by the Cataloging Division of the Library of Congress as computers were in the early stages of being applied to the library catalogs.


Academic libraries in colleges and universities formed the Ohio College Library Center in 1967 and began development of electronic access to libraries that has become today’s OCLC, Inc. that is the worldwide product called “Worldcat” today.


Our library system began the move to electronic format in 1988, eliminating the card catalog in 1993.


Today that “catalog” has moved to the next step of development as items are aren’t traditional printed books have been added to the system.


Some people are thrilled, and some aren’t.  Some people use only traditional books, some use only eBooks and some use both.


I looked in our catalog under the title entry for “Steubenville” and found 531 entries.


The Steubenville book that Sandy Day and I wrote in 2005 appears first, and shows the printed book copy, or the Kindle version and Adobe EPUB version, as well as a Hoopla eBook.


Looking down the list on the first page I found records for the Steubenville Herald-Star on microfilm, the Steubenville Courier on microfilm, as well as a 1953 highway plan for SR 7 through the city in print format.


If you look up the popular author James Patterson, you will find 1,669 record items ranging from the traditional book, to books on CD, DVDs relating to movies done from his books, and a range of eBooks that can be downloaded to your device directly from the catalog.


Oops, I used the term “catalog” again.


Our system has the advantage of showing the collection of 93 library systems in Ohio, all of which can be requested or downloaded for your use here in Jefferson County.


Some librarians lament about the old card catalog, and how much fun it was to sort through those 3 x 5 cards looking for a book.


When we closed our catalog in 1993, I made a 3 ringed binder with samples of the cards to show what it was like --- and in the years since I have never looked at it or showed it to anyone with questions about the “old days.”


It was estimated that less than 10 percent of library users in those days could actually use the card catalog with any certainty of what they were doing.


I can remember the people with dazed looks flipping through the card catalog, or the reaction of people when the librarian asked, “Have you looked in the card catalog?”


Everyone seemed fearful of having to “ask the Librarian” or admitting that they had no idea of how to use the catalog.


I hope that fear is gone with today’s online catalog, which can also be used from your home computer.