The Card Catalog: Books, Cards, and Literary Treasures by The Library of Congress is a gorgeous book. It shares over 200 images of old library cards (often handwritten), wonderful vintage oak cabinets that once held the cards, frontispieces of first editions of Little Women, Moby Dick, The Scarlet Letter, The Souls of Black Folk, The Cat in the Hat, and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (along with a handwritten note from Mark Twain). There’s a Shakespeare First Folio, and a copy of the astoundingly titled American Cookery, Or the Art of Dressing Viants, Fish, Poultry and Vegetables, and the Best Modes of Making Pastes, Puffs, Pies, Tarts, Puddings, Custards and Preserves, and all kinds of CAKES, from the Imperial PLUMB to Plain CAKE, Adapted to this Country, And All Grades of Life by Amelia Simmons, An American Orphan (Hudson & Goodwin, 1796), which (whew) I would totally read.
The Card Catalog traces the history of libraries and their organization strategies, starting from the papyrus scrolls in the Library of Alexandria, through playing cards with notes on the back used by librarians during the French Revolution (gotta use something discreet and portable at a time of such upheaval), to standardized handwritten card systems (such as “library hand,” a penmanship system designed in the 1800s by Thomas Edison and New York State Library Director Melvil Dewey, dictating the size and slant of lettering and the amount of spacing, insuring that all cards would look the same in every library), to typewritten cards toward the end of the 19th century, to digital listings in the mid-20th century. These changes were all intended to improve organization and retrieval methods—which are essential, especially at a place like the Library of Congress, which holds more than 165 million items. Peter Devereaux, a writer-editor in the Library of Congress’s publishing office (who seems to have written the book, though it is annoyingly credited only to the Library of Congress), writes in the introduction, “Assembled in handsome oak cabinets, the card catalog once framed the palatial Main Reading Room at the Library of Congress. It has now fallen to the exigencies of modern life, replaced by the flickering screens of the online computer catalog.”
A lot of us have wistful, sorrowful feelings about tactile card catalogs going the way of the dino…even though there’s no doubt that a computerized system is infinitely more scalable and flexible, that it takes up less floor space (165 million items!), and that it allows library patrons to search across multiple branches in a heartbeat. But ohhh, those beautiful, quirky little cards.
Which were unwieldy. By the 1960s, the Library of Congress’s catalog consisted of over nine million of those cards. So yasher koach to Jewish computer programmer Henriette D. Avram, who created the “first automated cataloging system in the world”: Machine-readable cataloging, aka MARC. The Card Catalog doesn’t spend much time on Avram, which is fine (hey, there’s thousands of years of cataloging history to plow through), but you can learn more about her at the Jewish Women’s Archive. Avram didn’t have an MLS degree—she didn’t even have a college degree—but she single-handedly developed a file format that makes information discoverable. Her son Lloyd joked that MARC actually stood for “Mother Avram’s Remarkable Contribution.” In the 1950s, at the National Security Agency, she was one of only about 100 people in the world doing computer programming. She became interested in the idea of a “bibliographic utility”—a tool to share automated info about books—so she moved to the Library of Congress and began coding and sub-coding elements of the existing printed card catalog. Through her work, the Library of Congress started to be able to share catalog information on computer tapes, and later through the File Transfer Protocol (FTP). Her procedures were completely implemented in 1971. Her daughter Marcie noted that even though her mother wasn’t a librarian, she won nearly every library award in existence. The one she valued most was her 1974 Federal Women’s Award from the Library of Congress. “She never took off the medallion she received that evening,” Marcie told JWA. “It was around her neck until the day she died.” Avram passed away in 2006, and is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.
Today, artists interested in storytelling, history and obsolescence are working with old catalog cards. I’m kind of obsessed with an Etsy crafter who creates tiny referential paintings on cards. The Library of Congress has cleverly marketed its own line of notecards based on some of its treasures. And The Card Catalog tells the story of Thomas Johnston, an artist who saved a ton of Harvard’s Widener Library cards from the landfill. “As a printmaker,” he said, “I was fascinated by the idea of a large number of similarly sized and shaped things, as repeated components, and that each one was a unique contribution of an individual… As artifacts, they continue to be exciting to look through, to realize the creative activity, research and information that each card represents, and further, how each card has played a role in advancing knowledge.” Emory University invited its community to create art on its retired cards. Massachusetts Greenfield Community College librarian Hope Schneider mailed authors their old catalog cards, asking them to sign and return them. Some returned them with poems written on them, some refused to participate because they were so upset at the destruction of the physical catalog. Phantom Tollbooth author Norman Juster wrote on his, “As a kid the card catalog was always my ‘rabbit hole’—I am sorry to see it disappear.” Schneider wanted to create an exhibit because so few of her students had even seen a catalog card. As the The Card Catalog notes, “Even when the cards are stripped out of their cozy wooden drawers, scribbled on, and mounted on walls, they might end up steering another generation of readers to the books they once represented.” Amen to that.
Marjorie Ingall is the author of Mamaleh Knows Best: What Jewish Mothers Do to Raise Successful, Creative, Empathetic, Independent Children.