Searching For The Lost Card Catalog


Charles Ammi Cutter made the first explicit statement regarding the objectives of a bibliographic system in his Rules for a Printed Dictionary Catalog in 1876. According to Cutter, those objectives were:

1. to enable a person to find a book of which either of the following is known (identifying objective)

•the author
•the title
•the subject
•the category

2. to show what the library has (collocating objective)

•by a given author
•on a given subject
•in a given kind of literature

3. to assist in the choice of a book (evaluating objective)

•as to its edition (bibliographically)
•as to its character (literary or topical)

(Make your own catalog card here!)

Card catalogs were a very complex technology developed to organize and provide access to vast information resources housed in libraries. Built around the intersection of like data represented in different ways, card catalogs let searchers not only locate a specific resource, but also find other related resources in a collection.

Resources were reduced to a surrogate record that was described on a catalog card (3” x 5” with a hole in the bottom middle for the retaining rod). Title cards described a particular work and were organized alphabetically by title. Similarly, author cards collocated all of the works by a particular author and subject cards provided links to similar works. A second set of catalog cards called a shelf list was maintained by librarians with a single card for each object in the collection sorted in the order in which they should be found on the shelf. This facilitated a physical inventory of the collection.

Searching a card catalog required a good deal of manual dexterity as long catalog drawers often had to be removed from a storage rack for access. With each drawer holding hundreds of cards, searching was a very physical task. Use of the retaining rods for swordplay, while a way to break up the tedium of searching, was not appreciated by library staff. And dropping a drawer without the rod was a right of passage for that same library staff as was graduating from filing above the rod.

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