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

Book Finds!

The main branch of my city library is huge. It has several floors of library books, a cafe on the bottom floor and theaters for plays and films. It also has a stellar used book department with clean books in great shape in all the various categories. But its claim to fame, in my opinion, is the ‘Vintage Books’ section. Donated mostly from estate sales, there are amazing finds here. There might be a first edition of something, but mainly they are just old books or classics in hardcover or well-known books in their time, 1900-1950, that I have heard of but never read.

Yesterday, I had an exceptionally fruitful excursion that cost me only $5.75!

 

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The Year of Magical Thinking
, Joan Didion
I have read very little by Didion, but this title always intrigued me: struggling through grief and heartbreak after the deaths of a husband and daughter.

 

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Betty Smith
I was so happy to find a good copy of this. Molly Guptill Manning wrote about this book in her excellent, When Books Went to War. One of the ways publishers supported the war effort was to publish classic books in thin, small editions that could fit in a back pocket. Soldiers wrote to Betty Smith saying this book made them think of their hometowns.

The Paris Sketch Book, William Thackeray
Holy cow, folks…complete with illustrations by the author. I would love to know about the person in whose collection this was.

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How to Astonish the French–An English Family in the Tuileries.


Summer
, Edith Wharton
An important work of Wharton’s; it is an honest look at a young woman’s sexual awakening.

 

The Seven Story Mountain, Thomas Merton
One of my reading interests is religion and spirituality. I especially enjoy reading books about spiritual journeys and faith struggles. Regardless of the particular religion or spiritual path, I can relate and feel kinship.

 

Nathaniel Hawthorne, Harold Bloom, Ed.
Now that I have read several major works by Hawthorne, I was interested in this critical analysis of his work.

 

The Bostonians, Henry James
Oh, this reminds me of college literary courses! And it’s been that long since I read it. It was published in magazine installments before it came out in book form a few years before Edward Bellamy’s, Looking Backward (set in Boston), which I just reviewed, so the title caught my eye.

 

The Scarlet Pimpernel, Emmuska Orczy
Confession: I am a product of Saturday morning Looney Tunes and like many kids of that generation, my first exposure to classic literature and classical music was from those cartoons (and Ed Sullivan, but that is a post for another day)! Elmer Fudd is forever seared in my mind as he sings The Ride of the Valkyries and I can still see Daffy Duck sword fighting as The Scarlet Pumpernickel. Alas, it is time I read the actual classic.

 

Colonial Folkways, Charles M. Andrews
This slim volume was written in 1919 and describes daily life in colonial America. The subject interests me and I enjoy seeing how historians through the decades view their subject.

 

The Telltale Heart and other Writings, Edgar Allan Poe
I don’t have any works by Poe at the moment and wanted something for any ‘Scary October’ readathons.

 

The Winter of our Discontent, John Steinbeck
If I say I have never read a Steinbeck, can I still say I am a reader?; that I love old books? And yes, I have yet to read The Grapes of Wrath. I think I need a ‘California readathon’ 🙂

 

My sister is delivering to me a new bookcase this weekend. When she first offered it I was sure there would be a lot of empty space…

Old Books….

I’ll let you define “old book” for yourself. For me, it is anything before the 1950s.

I am not sure why I am drawn to old books, although I do have a historical sensibility about things in general. When I am interested in something I go back to the source, the foundation, the original. I am often surprised by its relevance. The New Age, the Modern Age is really the Old Age gussied up with contemporary lingo and sometimes we don’t even know the idea is not new.

I read classic literature almost like primary source documents. I am pulled into its time and sensibility, the social and political atmosphere, its cultural context, even its gastronomic display. I’ve been reading like this since I can remember. My surroundings fade and I fall through the rabbit hole of the past.

I am not an obsessive-compulsive reader. And while I often have more than one book going at a time, I don’t hurry the process. I think about what I am reading. Books affect me and I am often in a state of that affectedness. I love when that happens; when a writer, living or dead, has caused me to pause, to feel, to learn. I am grateful to have been so changed.