The Library History Buff

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 Postal Librariana

Library History

Evolution of the Library Card Catalog

November 1789

The revolutionary government of France confiscates the library holdings of all religious houses.  It is decided to use the books to establish a system of public libraries.  An inventory and listing of all books is ordered.  To accomplish this a set of instructions is created which is known as the "French Cataloging Code of 1791".  Inventory takers use the blank backs of playing cards to write down the bibliographic information for each book.


Harvard College Librarian Thaddeus William Harris urges in his 1840 annual report that a "slip catalogue" be created consisting of the title of every work in the library on pieces of card 6 1/2 inches long and 1 1/2 inches wide.  According to library historian Kenneth E. Carpenter, this is apparently the first reference to a card catalog in an American library.  A "slip catalogue" began soon after and continued to be used by staff of the Harvard College Library until 1912.  Cards in the Harris catalog actually ended up being 9 inches long.  Carpenter notes that the idea of a "slip catalogue" probably originated with William Croswell who was hired by Harvard to produce a new printed catalog in 1812. Croswell began his task by cutting up the printed catalog of 1790 into slips. 

September 16, 1853

At the Library Conference of 1853, Charles Folsom, librarian of the Boston Athenaeum, describes his card catalog.  It "consisted of a series of cards, about nine inches long and two wide, which were laid in a pile and a hole bored through each end of the whole, and strings passed through them.  These strings were of such a length as to allow the whole of the cards to be slid back or forward, as the writer or compositor should find necessary, yet still preserving them in their proper order, without confusion or danger of loss.  The whole were fitted into a box of the requisite size, from which they could be drawn singly without deranging the consecutiveness of each."


In 1860 Harvard Librarian John Langdon Sibley proposes a card catalog for public use as a method of keeping the library's catalog up to date.  Assistant Librarian Ezra Abbot takes on the task of designing a card catalog that could be easily accessed but was secure from getting out of order.  This involved placing the cards on edge between two wooden blocks.  His solutions are described in the Annual Report of the library for 1863 and were adopted by many American libraries. Work on the catalog began in 1862 and hand written cards for 35,762 books were created in the first year.  The catalog cards were 5 x 12.25 cm (2 x 5 inches) inches wide and two inches high. Although some variations of the card catalog existed in American libraries as early as the 1840s, those catalogs were primarily for staff use.  The Harvard catalog was the first created for public use. For more on the catalog cards used by Harvard click here.

This 12 tray Library Bureau card catalog belongs to Norman D. Stevens who provided the following information. "According to the U. S. patent information on the blocks that hold the cards in place it was manufactured after May 1903. This cabinet is 13 wide, by 15 deep, by 19 high; it holds Harvard College size cards (2 x 5) that were one of the two standard sizes adopted at the first American Library Association conference in 1877. It was formerly used at the Middlebury College Library in Middlebury, VT. Although more compact than trays holding cards of the other standard (3 x 5), these smaller catalogs were largely abandoned by 1925. That was probably due to the fact that when the catalog cards in it were tightly packed it was difficult to read text toward the bottom of the card."




April 30, 1877

A preliminary report of the Cooperation Committee of the American Library Association is published in the American Library Journal (now the Library Journal). The report makes recommendations for standard catalog cards in two sizes.  One size is the Harvard College size of 5 x 12.25 cm and the other is the "postal" size of 7.5 x 12.25 cm.  The second size was to become the predominant choice for American library catalog cards.  The two standards were officially adopted at the first conference of the American Library Association which took place in New York on September 4-5, 1877.  Although Melvil Dewey wasn't actually a member of the Cooperation Committee, as Secretary of ALA he was actively involved in its deliberations and was largely responsible for the adoption of the standards.


Both catalog card stock and card catalog cabinets were marketed by Library Bureau, the library supply company founded by Melvil Dewey. The company was legally established in 1881although its predecessors date back to 1876.  By 1886 the Library Bureau had an extensive line of products related to card catalogs. Many of these items were illustrated in its 1886 library supply catalog including the early card catalog cabinet below.

The catalog cabinet is designed to hold standard 7.5 x 12.5 cm catalog cards but unlike later catalog cabinets each drawer is divided into two rows.







In a paper presented at the World's Library Congress held at the Columbian Exposition, William C. Lane, Librarian of the of the Boston Athenaeum, provided an overview of current cataloguing practices of American libraries.

Form of the catalog in use by libraries: printed catalog with printed supplements; printed catalog with card supplements; on cards complete; on slips pasted in volumes; on slips fastened in bunches like the leaves of a book; the Rudolph Indexer; printed finding lists or other abbreviated form; and printed bulletins of recent accessions.

Catalog cases: "Until recently the usual custom has been to keep the cards of the catalog in drawers each drawer having ordinarily two rows of cards." (See above). "... a lighter drawer or sliding sliding tray has lately been introduced holding a single row of cards and often not as deep as the old drawers."

Catalog card sizes: "There are two recognized standards sizes in common use, the so called postal size, 12.5x7.5 cm. and the smaller size, 12.5.5 cm."  Other sizes in use: 12.75x5.2 cm.; 12.75x7.25 cm.; 6x4 in.; 12.8x5 cm.; 13.85x8 cm.; 13.35x5.05 cm.; 13x5.7 cm; 15.5x8 cm.; 14x7 cm.; and 5x2&5/8 in.

Writing and printing methods for catalog cards: "Most libraries still employ a running hand, generally preferring an upright and round letter to a slanted or angular."  The typewriter is employed by some libraries.  The Hammond machine is used by most of these although some use the Remington.  "Printed cards are now supplied by the Library Bureau at a moderate price for current new books, while some libraries print their own cards or mount printed slips on cards for their card catalog."


The Library of Congress begins the sale and distribution of pre-printed catalog cards to libraries throughout the nation.


By 1925 the American library card catalog had substantially evolved and standardized catalog cards (7.5 x 12.5 cm) in standardized card catalog cabinets were in widespread use.  The card catalog cabinet illustrated below is from a 1925 Library Bureau supply catalog.

Click here for information on the current use of old card catalog cabinets.


"A History of the Card Catalog" by Sandy Brooks in Whole Library Handbook 3 compiled by George M. Eberhart.  American Library Association 2000.

The First 350 Years of the Harvard University Library by Kenneth F. Carpenter. Harvard University Library 1986.

Irrepressible Reformer by Wayne A. Wiegand. American Library Association 1996.Mitchell,

Barbara A. "Boston Library Catalogues, 1850-1875 Female Labor and Technological Change," in Augst and Carpenter, eds. Institutions of Reading: The Social Life of Libraries in the United States (University of Massachusetts Press, 2007), pp. 119-147.

Papers Prepared for the World's Library Congress Held at the Columbian Exposition edited by Melvil Dewey. Government Printing Office 1896.



 Postal Librariana

Library History

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