Deep Dive Into the LOC’s Card Catalog

9781452145402.jpgBibliophiles, grab a slip of paper and a mini pencil: the Library of Congress has traced the history of a much beloved piece of library furniture (and knowledge repository) in The Card Catalog: Books, Cards, and Literary Treasures (Chronicle Books, $35), published this week to coincide with National Library Week. Boasting a foreword by Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden, the handsomely illustrated hardcover is a paean to library technology, old and new.   
Certainly book lovers will be drawn to the imagery--more than two hundred full-color images of original cards, first editions book covers, and archival photos from the library’s collection. More than a few will feel sentimental for the standardized penmanship--aka, “Library Hand”--used to fill out cards until the linotype and the typewriter took over. Nostalgia aside, the images of the cards make a convincing argument for retention. All of the various marks and stamps, indicating name or location changes or reclassifications, can be read the way a book historian might read an antiquarian book’s preliminary pages, noting the various owners’ signatures, scripts, and dates, to uncover its provenance.  

Neat trivia turns up in the fine print. For example, who knew that J. Edgar Hoover had been a library clerk? He later wrote that his job “gave me an excellent foundation for my work in the FBI where it has been necessary to collate information and evidence.” Or, how about the fact that it was a female mathematician named Henriette D. Avram who “devised the first automated cataloging system in the world, known as Machine-Readable Cataloging (MARC)” in 1966 at the LOC. It’s still in use today. The book also aptly conveys the enormity (and occasional tedium) of the LOC cataloger’s task; library rumor had it that card-filing clerks who failed to meet quotas “dumped their cards down the elevator shafts.”

While the LOC “froze” its card catalog in 1980--meaning it no longer physically added cards to the wooden cabinets--the library continued to make and distribute cards to other libraries using the LOC system until 1997. Amazingly, the LOC did not, like its peers, ditch its hefty card catalog once it had become obsolete in the eyes of others. There is still data to be mined. As one of its librarians put it: “In short, the information contained in the Main Card Catalog--and not found anywhere else--continues to be needed in many instances for efficient access to the Library’s millions of pre-1968 volumes because much of the needed information on the cards did not make the transition to the online catalog.”    
Read the book’s introduction by Peter Devereaux here.

Image courtesy of Chronicle Books

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