File This Under Nostalgia: New Book Pays Tribute To The Library Card Catalog

Apr 13, 2017
Originally published on April 14, 2017 6:26 am

If you do a Google search for "card catalog" it will likely return Pinterest-worthy images of antique furniture for sale — boxy, wooden cabinets with tiny drawers, great for storing knick-knacks, jewelry or art supplies.

But before these cabinets held household objects, they held countless index cards — which, at the time, were the pathways to knowledge and information. A new book from the Library of Congress celebrates these catalogs as the analog ancestor of the search engine.

There's a huge card catalog in the basement of the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. "There's tens of millions of cards here," says Peter Devereaux, author of The Card Catalog: Books, Cards, and Literary Treasures. "It's a city block long."

Some highlights from the Library of Congress' collection include cards from Walt Whitman, Samuel Langhorne Clemens (you might know him as Mark Twain), Margaret Mitchell, James Baldwin, William Faulkner ... the list goes on and on.

Some of the cards are handwritten, others are typed with cross out marks and notes scribbled in the margins.

Humans have been cataloging for as long as we've had stuff to keep track of. Information isn't much good if you don't know where to find it, right?

There were the Sumerian catalogs of clay. The library of Alexandria in ancient Egypt had an impressive system for organizing and inventorying their scrolls. In the decades after the invention of the Gutenberg printing press, readers were panicking — with information being produced so rapidly, how could you possibly keep track of it all?

"The card catalog was a way of managing this increase in material," explains Carla Hayden, the librarian of Congress.

The card catalog as we know it showed up right after the French Revolution — a few hundred years after Gutenberg.

"What we have today is a fire hose of information," Hayden says. "Being able to catalog or contain and make sense of all of this information is what the card catalog represents."

Handwritten cards began to be standardized in the 1800s, when New York State Library Director Melvil Dewey and inventor Thomas Edison perfected a handwriting style called "library hand." Its goal was to make the cards read the same no matter the library. Typewritten cards started appearing at the end of the 19th century.

Cataloging wasn't always neat and tidy — even for the old Congressional Library. An Annual Report from 1897 depicted a chaotic state of affairs: "The Library was so congested, books were heaped up in so many crevices and out-of-the-way corners, down in the crypt, hidden in darkness from access of observation, that obtaining a volume, and especially, one out of the range of general reading, was a question of time and patience. Frequently, it depended upon the phenomenal memory of the distinguished Librarian."

That distinguished librarian was Ainsworth Rand Spofford — who had his own "idiosyncratic" approach to cataloging. He said that without more space, he would be "presiding over the greatest chaos in America."

Spofford got his way, and the library reorganized and expanded that same year.

Card catalogs began to be phased out in the 1980s, but Hayden says there's plenty of nostalgia for the perfectly organized drawers of cards.

Generations of library users remember pulling out the drawers, fingering through the cards, and having those moments of discovery. "It's like a cabinet of curiosities," she says.

In the basement catalog at the Library of Congress, Hayden pulls out a card for her favorite childhood book — Bright April by Marguerite De Angeli, about a young Girl Scout.

"It was the first book that I saw that featured a young African-American Brownie and I loved it," she recalls.

And the card points Hayden to other books.

"If I was looking in the catalog at the time, I'd go 'What else did she write?'" These cards take her to De Angeli's Newbery Medal winner The Door in The Wall, and from there she's down a rabbit hole.

Human brains want to make connections. Whether it's poring over a card catalog or scrolling down a screen of search results.

The Library of Congress is working with universities and tech companies to create the next iteration of the card catalog — but unfortunately for all you tactile types, it probably won't be stored in tiny wooden drawers.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

David, you and I are old enough to remember card catalogs at the library, right?

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Three words - Dewey Decimal System.

MARTIN: Did you go to the library in college?

GREENE: Of course I went to the library...

MARTIN: OK.

GREENE: ...And spent time in (unintelligible) catalogs.

MARTIN: Anyway, so those old card catalogs are basically furniture - right? - big wooden cabinets with tiny drawers. These things are retro chic now, people use them for all kinds of things - sewing supplies, snacks, shoes. Those tiny drawers are the analog equivalent to Google. There's a new book about the history of the card catalog from the Library of Congress which gave NPR's Andrew Limbong, a great excuse to check out the archives.

ANDREW LIMBONG, BYLINE: In a basement beneath the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., there's a wall that's lined with those wooden drawers containing index cards.

PETER DEVERAUX: There's tens of millions of cards here. This is a city block-long.

LIMBONG: That's Peter Deveraux who wrote the new book titled "The Card Catalog," and I'm also here with Carla Hayden. He's the librarian of Congress.

CARLA HAYDEN: OK. So let's explore.

LIMBONG: Highlights from the library's collection include Whitman comma Walt, "Leaves Of Grass," Clemens, Samuel Langhorne, also known as Mark Twain, "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," Margaret Mitchell, James Baldwin, William Faulkner, that Shakespeare guy and on and on and on - some handwritten, some typed with various cross-out marks and notes scribbled on the side.

Cataloguing has been around for as long as we humans had stuff to keep track of. Information isn't much good if you don't know where to find it. There is Sumerian catalogs of clay. The great catalog in the Library of Alexandria and ancient Egypt and then in the 14 and 1500s after Gutenberg invented the printing press, readers were freaking out. There was all this information coming out so rapidly. How could people keep track of it? Maybe you can relate to the feeling. Jump ahead a few hundred years after the French Revolution when the card catalogue as we know it was created.

HAYDEN: The card catalog was a way of managing this increase in material and what we have today is what people are calling a firehose of information and being able to catalogue or contain and make sense of all of this information is what the card catalogue represents.

LIMBONG: Now, today, the card catalog is nostalgia. It really has been since the 1980s when card catalog started fading.

HAYDEN: As I travel around as a librarian, I have people of certain generations that remember fondly fingering the cards and the discovery of that and pulling out the drawers. It's like a cabinet of curiosities.

LIMBONG: Hayden pulls out a card for her favorite childhood book, "Bright April" by Marguerite De Angeli about a Girl Scout Brownie.

HAYDEN: And it was the first book that I saw that featured a young African-American Brownie, and I loved it.

LIMBONG: The card points Hayden to related books.

HAYDEN: If I was looking in the catalog at that time, I said what else did she write? And I would go and "The Door In A Wall" - oh, what's that about? And it tells you about the books, and this card - "The Door In A Wall" - says incidental music composed by Herb Davidson. I think oh, music, And I keep going. And then there's Ealon's "America" - oh, "A Quaker Girl" (ph) and "Gerald's Island." And that's - was the discovery in the process.

LIMBONG: Human brains want to make connections whether it's fingering through a card catalog or now scrolling down the screen of search results. The Library of Congress is working with universities and tech companies to create the next form of the card catalogue. It probably won't be little screens that fit inside tiny drawers. Andrew Limbong, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.