Five things you might not know about the card catalog

By Tuesday, August 8, 2017 0 , , , Permalink 0

I won’t hold it against you if you haven’t yet rushed out to get your copy of The Library of Congress’ book The Card Catalog: Books, Cards, and Literary Treasures. I know it takes a special kind of person to read a book like this, but I’m here to tell you that not only did I read it, but I also found it pretty damn interesting.

I mean, tell me you aren’t intrigued by this introduction by Peter Devereaux, Writer-Editor, The Library of Congress:

“Opening a drawer and flipping through the well-worn cards, many handwritten and filled with marginalia containing valuable information not to be found in an Internet search, leaves one with a sense of awe at how catalogers distilled so much information onto simple 3-by 5-inch index cards — cards that still sit neatly filed, waiting to reveal the treasures hidden in the hundreds of miles of Library stacks on Capitol Hill.”

While the book is quite dense (it starts with the origins of the card catalog, around 3000 BC), many of the pages are photographs of the cards, with handwritten notes and corrections in pencil, plus book covers and other nerdy stuff.

Needless to say, I learned a lot about the card catalog by reading this book. Here are five of the standout facts:

1) Harvard’s assistant librarian, Ezra Abbot, created the first card catalog designed for use by library patrons (instead of library staff). That in and of itself would have been a pretty big advancement, but the fact that libraries were still using expensive bound catalogs meant that the card catalog system could literally change the way people located books in libraries across the country. “The flexibility of adding or deleting cards to accurately and immediately reflect a library’s holdings was groundbreaking when compared to the intractable bound catalog the card catalog was destined to supplant.” Abbot’s associate was Charles Ammi Cutter, and it was his idea that the catalogs would include author, title, and subject of work.

2) In early days of the catalog system, library staff had to be trained to produce cards in “Library Hand” to ensure legibility. As with all scripts, there were some specific requirements: rounded letters, upright, small letters 2mm high, capitals twice that. There were also guidelines on the posture you should have when writing out the cards: “…the round muscle of the forearm to rest lightly on the desk away from the body to secure a free arm movement.”

3) As the publishing industry grew, so did the demand for space to house these card catalogs. Plus they were very expensive to maintain, since you had to pay people to constantly sort and file thousands of these cards. To put it in perspective, in the 50s the main card catalog at the Library of Congress consisted of 10,500 trays holding over nine million cards. My favourite story from the whole book was about how the clerks who didn’t manage to meet their weekly quotas would occasionally dump the cards they didn’t get to down the elevator shaft.

4) When libraries started to look for ways to automate things, Henriette D. Avram, a mathematician, joined the Library of Congress, and in 1966 she devised a cataloging system called MARC (Machine-Readable Cataloging). The records were stored on magnetic tape and could be searched at a computer terminal. I wish this book had spent more time on Mrs. Avram, because what she did was really quite amazing. I think this quote from her obituary in the Washington Post sums it up well:

“Mrs. Avram did more than type the text of card catalogues into a database. She designed a mathematical code, using cataloguing numbers, letters and symbols to denote different elements, or fields, of bibliographic information. The result was a system that could be shared among libraries, greatly increasing access to their materials and reducing the legwork needed to find them.”

5) Libraries began the task of converting their cards to the new system, and by the mid-70s the Library of Congress had installed the first computer terminal for public use. By 1980, the card catalog was done. So what did all those libraries do with the old cards? Apparently some had mock funerals. One library even tied helium balloons to the cards and people came to watch as they floated away. A librarian in Massachusetts decided to mail the cards to their authors. But most of the cards went in the trash.

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