The Card Catalog: Books, Cards, and Literary Treasures, The Library of Congress (2017)

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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 index cards that still sit neatly filed, waiting to reveal the treasures hidden in the hundreds of miles of Library stacks on Capitol Hill.

 

 

 

The library card catalog. I spent my college career rifling through those long drawers, sticking pencils between cards to save my place when class notes or a professor’s recommendation drew me to another drawer. I remember having to wait when another student was in a drawer I wanted, impatient while they jotted down the title of the material and its location. I took my book-hoard to ‘my’ study carrel on the second floor next to the vine covered east windows where the sun dappled the desk. I did a history degree with the card catalog, volumes of the ‘subject index’ and an electric typewriter!

The Card Catalog: Books, Cards, and Literary Treasures traces the history of the card catalog and the various methods of organizing library materials, while celebrating the creation and the vast holdings in The Library of Congress.

History

It is fascinating to think that even though we are highly digitized at this point, we still use the same, but expanded foundation Zenodotus, the first librarian at the library of Alexandria developed when the proliferation of scrolls needed some kind of organization. After inventorying the scrolls and arranging them alphabetically he attached a tag at the end of each scroll to indicate the author, title and subject.

Once people started writing on velum and bound the pieces together at one end and put a cover on them creating a codex or book, it made better use of space. One could write on both sides of the material, number the pages and put information on the spine making for quicker reference.

 

A Library for a Nation

The Card Catalog details the evolution of the Library of Congress, the trials and tribulations of deciding what books to purchase (James Madison had an idea), how to collect and purchase them (British firm of Cadell and Davies), how the War of 1812 damaged most of the nascent collection and what the purchase of Thomas Jefferson’s private library did to expand the future of the collection.

While still an undergraduate at Amherst, Dewey was obsessed with bringing order to the school’s library, and he recounted that while day dreaming during a long lecture one day, “without hearing a word, my mind absorbed in the vital problem, the solution flasht over me so that I jumpt in my seat and came very near shouting ‘Eureka!'”

Into the early years of the 19th century, there still remained the problem of standardization, but that changed when Melville Louis Kossuth Dewey developed his classification system which was adopted at the first meeting of the American Library Association in 1876. To make it easier for public and university libraries, the ALA Supplies Department became the shopping source for all materials related to the card catalog. So, with Dewey’s system in place and a one-stop shop for cabinets, cards, stamps and so on libraries and a patron’s experience were standardized.

By the 1950s, the main card catalog at the Library of Congress had more than 9 million cards. As computers came on the scene and began to digitize this data December 31, 1980 was declared the end of the printed card.

The text of this book is written by Peter Devereaux of the the Library of Congress Publishing Office. The narrative is fast paced, colorful and full of photographs that help the reader visualize the history of the card catalog from the discovery of the of the first card catalog made from clay tablets (a listing of 62 literary works, including The Epic of Gilgamesh) up to the present with online catalogs available in every public, private and university library.

Highlighting materials from its collection, each item has its cover photographed on one side with its catalog card on the opposite page. Many of the cards are handwritten with information not found on the Internet when the cards were digitized. It was fun, instructive and a bit nostalgic to read through this book.

For me the card catalogue has been a companion all my working life. To leave it is like leaving the house one was brought up in. Barbara Tuchman, 1985, The New Yorker.

 

Some examples below.

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English Bible. Selections, 1788. The card reads in part, “Select passages in the Old and New Testaments, represented with emblematical figures, for the amusement of youth; designed chiefly to familiarize tender age, in a pleasing and diverting manner….” In other words, keeping kids interested in the Bible is an age-old problem!

 

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This is the title page of the 2nd edition that includes the words, A Romance. My edition, a Signet Classic published in 1980, doesn’t have that either on the cover or anywhere in the front matter. I wonder when that changed?

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The card reads, The library of the late Harry Houdini on magic, spiritualism, occultism and psychical research, bequeathed to the Library of Congress in 1926, may be consulted upon application to the Custodian of the Rare Book Room.
Houdini said his library of psychic phenomena, Spiritualism, magic, witchcraft, demonology and evil spirits contained material going back to 1489. With this bequest, the Library added 3,988 volumes to its collection.

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Some editions are simply gorgeous, like this title-page font for Robert Frost’s Pulitzer Prize winning collection, New Hampshire. The card reads, “Of this edition, three hundred and fifty copies only have been printed. This copy is number 187.” Signed by author.

 

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Another gorgeous cover, but there is no “The Legend of….” on the cover, although the card catalog gives it. Did editions in Irving’s time add that or is it modern? This must be a beautiful edition, because the catalog card also mentions the “ornamental borders” on the title page and within the text.

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The cards can indicate a name change.

 

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The cards can also indicate how subject designations change.
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I enjoyed reading this book. And I think the original cover art is the best I have seen on any other edition.

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My Edition
Title: The Card Catalog: Books, Cards, and Literary Treasures
Author: Library of Congress
Publisher: Chronicle Books
Device: Hard cover
Year: 2017
Pages: 224
Full plot summary

Challenges: Library Love

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10 thoughts on “The Card Catalog: Books, Cards, and Literary Treasures, The Library of Congress (2017)

  1. I started cataloguing 30 years ago, just after the demise of active card catalogue creation, although I often had to resort to searching in them for older material not yet added to the OPAC (Online Public Access Catalogue) A lot of the terminology in cataloguing still has its origins in the card system. And you weren’t a ‘real’ cataloguer until you had dropped a drawer and scattered all the cards out.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I love a good card catalog. My first job was in a library and they were one of the last to upgrade to a computer system – I remember when they threw all the cards away – it was awful. This is an amazing review, I cannot wait to read this book.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. For those of us of a particular age there’s a real nostalgia about these: for the format, the typewritten details, the handwritten notes. But I have to admit that I found it frustrating when the drawers were too full to read the cards easily, and resented the grime and grease that some browsers left, the notes on the reverse that were impossible to decipher, the drawers that deposited their contents because the rods were broken or because schoolkids in the public libraries where I worked had sabotaged them …

    Yet they were an artform and will be relics as precious as those cuneiform tablets that ancient Mesopotamia left us. A review that really had me salivating, thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, I agree that all was not golden and I am certainly happy that I can peruse the online catalog of my university library from the comfort of home and not have to wait for someone to finish!

      As I read through the book deciphering handwriting of another age, I felt that these cards are historical sources themselves, as conscientious librarians noted important elements in the material not only for the patron, but now, for posterity. Hmm…..

      “What an interesting project,” she thinks, salivating herself 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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