The Evolution of the Card Catalog System

Merriam-Webster defines a card catalog as "a set of cards in a library that have information about books, journals, etc., written on them and are arranged in alphabetical order." Card catalogs have changed in the years since they were first developed in the late 1780s. Many young readers today wouldn't recognize a library card catalog, since most cataloging is now online. We are going to take a look at the evolution of the card catalog system from its beginnings in the 18th century to the Internet-based system found today.

Where did the Card Catalog System Start?

Though the idea of cataloging goes back much further in history, the first organized card catalog system came about from the French Revolution. The revolutionary government, the Constituent Assembly, started confiscating books from nobles and churches. The books spared from burning for being "dangerous" were inventoried using a set of instructions known as the "French Cataloging Code of 1791."

Judith Hopkins described the steps of the code in her 1992 book, The 1791 French Cataloging Code and the Origins of the Card Catalog. She wrote that, because of paper shortages, the backs of blank playing cards were used. Those in charge of inventorying wrote the title page with the author's name underlined to use for filing. If no author was listed, a keyword in the title would be chosen to be underlined instead. Additionally, information about volumes, size, binding description, missing pages, and any illustrations was added. The playing cards were then sorted by the underlined author or word and strung together by needle and thread to keep them in order.

Development of the Card Catalog System

  • In the mid-1800s, an Italian publisher, Natale Battezzati, developed a card system for booksellers that had cards for authors, titles, and subjects.
  • By the 1840s, some variations of a card catalog system existed in American libraries; however, the Harvard catalog proposed by Harvard Librarian John Sibley in 1860 was the first catalog created specifically for public use.
  • In the late 1800s, Melvil Dewey (creator of the Dewey Decimal System that allowed for the systematic and consistent placing of books on library shelves) helped standardize card and cabinet sizes, making library card systems uniform.
  • Charles Cutter laid out the objectives of a cataloging system in his Rules for a Printed Dictionary Catalog in 1876. He listed that it should enable a person to find a book, show what the library has, and assist in the choice of a book.
  • Early cards were handwritten, then typewritten by individual libraries, until the Library of Congress began selling and distributing pre-printed cards to libraries in 1901. There were three separate cards for each book – author, title, and subject.
  • By 1925, the card catalog system with standardized cards and cabinets used by American libraries had been firmly established and remained pretty much the same until physical card catalogs began being phased out.

After the Card System

A precursor to online systems, microfilm began being used by libraries in the mid-1930s and 1940s. Its use began as a way to preserve newspapers, but that use was expanded for archival purposes and a space saving measure as library collections grew rapidly. Microfilm, microcards (used primarily for engineering drawings), and microfiche (flat sheets of film) use grew and by the 1960s it was a normal policy for libraries. These collections were still cataloged on cards, but the concept of library catalogs changed in the late 1960s.

What we know as Online Public Access Catalogs (OPAC) got their start from two major developments: the Library of Congress created MARC (Machine-Readable Cataloging), and the Online Computer Library Center (OCLC) was founded. The OCLC and its member libraries produce and maintain the largest OPAC in the world, WorldCat. The first large-scale use of online catalogs was in the Ohio State University Library in 1975 and the Dallas Public Library in 1978. Because of the cost savings, convenience, flexibility, and space savings, libraries began converting their physical card catalogs to online systems. By the 1980s, libraries were creating applications to automate things like purchases, cataloging, and the circulation of books and materials. These were collectively called the Integrated Library System (ILS) and they had an online catalog for the public to access.

Early ILS systems mimicked the prior card catalog systems. As the Internet grew and search engines became more sophisticated, users became dissatisfied with the limited online catalogs. Newer systems have been developed that are usually independent of any ILS, relying on other software to synchronize with the library systems. They have features that allow greater user interaction and sophisticated faceted searches based on more than just author, title, and subject.

OPACs provide a number of features not found in physical card catalogs.

  • Any word in a title or other fields can be used as a search term.
  • They are easier to access for those with disabilities.
  • Storage space needs are reduced.
  • Updates are easier and more efficient.
  • Using systems like WorldCat, searches can be done from home computers and other devices.

Although there have been a lot of changes throughout history in how libraries catalog, the main purpose of enabling librarians and users to find specific information from the vast supply of knowledge available has remained constant.

If you are interested in a detailed study about what users and librarians want, you can find a summary and a download link to the pdf of the OCLC's 2009 report here.