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History of the card catalog

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The history of the card catalog begins in Paris during the time of the French Revolution and ends in Dublin, Ohio in the 1970s, but the LC card started in 1901 The purpose of the card in bibliographic cataloging has not changed during the years as much as the format of the card. The most intriguing cards were those that were handwritten by trained librarians. Handwritten cards were replaced first by typewritten cards, then purchased cards, then online catalogs. Today there are few libraries that still use card catalogs and many young library users that do not know what a card catalog was or what it looked like.

The Purpose of Cards in Cataloging[edit]

The original purpose of the card as a cataloging tool was to aid in material retrieval by the user, to make access points available from the descriptions on the card, to determine the title, author and subject of the work, and to establish authority control. In a 1935 publication the card catalog is defined as “A catalogue, in any desired order, made on cards of uniform size and quality, and stored on their edges in drawers, each card being restricted to a single.” (Sharp 1935, 301)

Early Cards[edit]

The concept and creation of the first cards used for catalogs occurred in France around 1789. “The Constituent Assembly confiscated books and manuscripts and were brought to literary depots at several locations in Paris. The staff at each depot was to record on cards the basic particulars about each item held. These cards were then bound up in bundles and sent to the Paris Bureau de Bibliographie.” (Jackson 1974, 275) Because of wartime shortages, confiscated playing cards were used to record the information. Playing cards were larger and instead of having a pattern or a picture, were blank on the back. “The title page was to be transcribed on the card and the author’s surname underlined for the filing word. If there was no author, a keyword in the title was to be underlined. A collation was added that was to include number of volumes, size, a statement of illustration, the material of which the book was made, the kind of type, any missing pages, and a description of the binding if it was outstanding in any way. (This elaborate collation was partly for the purpose of identifying valuable books that the government might offer for sale in order to increase government revenue.) After the cards were filled in and put in order by underlined filing word, they were to be strung together by running a needle and thread through the lower left hand corners to keep them in order.” (Hopkins 1992, 378)

Early Modern Card Catalogs[edit]

Henry Sharp wrote about the card catalogs in 1935 and said, “In its more modern form, it began to make its appearance in British and American libraries round about 1876, in which year the well-known firm of Library Bureau was established, with Melvil Dewey at its head.” (Sharp 1935, 26) In fact, it was Melvil Dewey and Thomas Edison who studied, developed and perfected the approved library hand to be taught in library schools and used in all libraries.

Handwritten Cards[edit]

Before the widespread use of typewritten cards, cards for the catalogs were handwritten in the approved style. According to Melvil Dewey, the Director of the New York State Library, “The fact remains that nothing pays the candidate for a library position better for the time it costs than to be able to write a satisfactory library hand.” (New York State Library School 1903, 278) Even though the Library of Congress had begun distributing typewritten catalog cards in 1901, handwritten library cards were still preferred for years by many library directors.

Library Hand[edit]

There were many rules for the correct use of library hand. The objective was to create identical and readable cards by each individual in all libraries. The Handbook of the New York State Library School listed the requirements of library hand in their 1903 publication. They included legibility, speed, and uniformity. The particular type of ink, inkstands, pens, penholders, and erasers was specified. The standards for lettering were dictated in regards to size, slant, spacing, special letters and figures, even the proper posture and position of the writer was outlined...

Typewritten Cards[edit]

A librarian named Thomas Graham Lee wrote a booklet entitled Library Hand : A Lost Art. He acknowledges that “by the 1890’s ads were appearing in the Library Journal and Library Notes for a variety of typewriters. Most texts on cataloging written in the 1930’s expressed the notion that while handwriting cannot be abolished altogether… the typewriter should be used in modern days, if only for clarity’s sake.” (Lee 1977, 40)

Library of Congress and Purchased Cards[edit]

Taylor notes that “Card catalogs were popularized in the United states by Library of Congress (LC) cards, first made available for sale in 1901, and by H. W. Wilson cards, which began production in 1938 in response to the needs of small libraries. (Taylor 2004, 37)

Most libraries customized their purchased cards with their own call numbers and subject headings. A Library Primer recommends using the printed catalog cards from the Library of Congress because “these give very full details and should be used wherever possible. It is better, as well as economical, to use cards already prepared by experts than to make them yourself.” (Dana 1920, 106-107) Three copies of the card were required – one for the author, one for the title, and at least one for the subject.

The Card Disappears[edit]

In the late 1960s two developments changed the future of cataloging. The Library of Congress created the MARC format, enabling the machine readability of bibliographic records. The Online Computer Library Center (OCLC) was developed in Dublin, Ohio and started providing cataloging information via cable and terminal to all its member libraries. (Taylor 2004, 65) These two developments paved the way for the creation of Online Public Access Catalogs (OPACs). Because of the considerable amount of cost savings, most libraries converted to online catalogs and froze and discarded their card catalogs.

Many libraries destroyed their printed cards and disposed of their card catalog drawers. In 1985 the University of Tennessee announced in the Library Journal that they saved $15,000 per year by replacing their card catalog with the VTLS online system. Palo Alto, California’s library sold its card catalog drawers at an auction to the highest bidder. Alfred University in New York actually burned 100,000 cards to symbolize the ending of the paper path and the beginning of a new computerized road. The Danbury, Connecticut Public Library had a mock funeral for the library’s card catalog.


  • Arlene G. Taylor, The Organization of Information, 3rd ed., (Westport, Conn., : Libraries Unlimited, Inc., 2009) 48.
  • Henry A. Sharp, Cataloguing, A Textbook for Use in Libraries (London: Grafton & Co. 1935) 301.
  • Judith Hopkins, “The 1791 French Cataloging Code and the Origins of the Card Catalog,” Libraries and Culture 27, no. 4 (Fall 1992): 378-404.
  • Thomas Graham Lee, Library Hand: A Lost Art, (Ontonagon, Mich., 1977) 40.
  • New York State Library School, Handbook of the New York State Library School, including summer course and library handwriting…, (Albany, University of the state of New York, 1903), p. 278.
  • New York State Library, Bulletin 82, Library School 15, Melvil Dewey, Director. Handbook of the New York State Library School, including summer course and library handwriting, (Albany, University of the state of New York, 1903), p. 289.
  • John Cotton Dana, A Library Primer, 1920 ed., (Boston: Library Bureau, 1920), 79.
  • Library Journal, June 15, 1985, Vol. 110, no. 11. p. 19.
  • Library Journal, News, August, 1987. p 21.
  • College & Research Libraries News, Sept. 1994, Vol. 55, Issue 8. p. 467.