If you are of a certain age, you will recall the fascination of flipping through a series of 3 X 5-inch cards looking for just the right book to read in the car on a family road trip. Or to help with that term paper due next week. Or simply to find the author who let you know that at least one other person understood what it meant to be a bookish, sometimes lonely pre-teen with nerdy-looking glasses and a cowlick.
The card catalog, wrote celebrated author of The Phantom Tollbooth, Norton Juster, was the “rabbit hole” for generations of children who were searching for their next adventure. Pulitzer Prize-winner Annie Proulx remembers the “serendipitous discovery and the thrill of the chase” that came when one flipped through card-after-card in those beautiful oak drawers.
When asked to write an inscription on one of the cards for a library display, former U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins jotted a poem: “I love card catalogues / but I only wish / my cards were more dog eared!”
These remembrances are included in The Card Catalog: Books, Cards, and Literary Treasures (2017) by The Library of Congress. Featuring more than 200 images of original catalog cards, first edition book covers, and photographs from the Library’s archives, the book is a love letter to this artifact from an earlier time as well as an “ode to the enduring magic and importance of books.”
The story begins at the Library of Alexandria. When Alexander the Great founded the greatest library of antiquity and his monument to Greek cultural supremacy, his librarians were faced with the challenge of cataloging the scrolls then in use, scrolls with no title page, table of contents, or index. Alexander’s first librarian, Zenodotus, attempted to organize the collection, affixing a tag to each scroll indicating the author, title, and subject. He then compiled his Pinakes, or Tables of Those Who Were Outstanding in Every Phase of Culture and Their Writings. The cornerstone of library cataloging was laid there beside the Nile.
Over time the story moves through Benjamin Franklin, the founder of America’s first public lending library, and Thomas Jefferson, whose book collection famously came to serve as the basis of the Library of Congress (LOC) collection after the British burned the Capitol — and its fledgling library — in 1812. Jefferson’s system of cataloging his books relied on the earlier work of Sir Francis Bacon, and it was a variant of that catalog that the LOC adopted for the first half of the 19th century. But this 18th century organization scheme wasn’t working, leading many university and city libraries to begin developing systems of their own.
The first librarian of the Smithsonian Institution, Charles Coffin Jewett, stepped into the breech when he proposed a “National Union Catalog” with the Smithsonian as the national library. Jewett was prescient and many of his ideas were ultimately adopted, but he also ruffled feathers, leading to his dismissal. Most of us remember Melvil Dewey, widely recognized as the father of modern librarianship with a classification system that bears his name, as the inventor of the card catalog. Dewey also had a difficult personality which finally caught up to him in 2019, when the council of the American Library Association voted to strip Dewey’s name from its highest award, the Melvil Dewey Medal, citing his history of racism, anti-Semitism and sexual harassment.
The Card Catalog demonstrates that there were a number of cooks in this kitchen, leading the LOC — now at the turn-of-the-century under the direction of Herbert Putnam — to become the nation’s standard-bearer for the classification system we knew throughout the 20th century. This work goes into the detail of how the classification system and cards became standardized, with LOC printing cards for national distribution. When many of us entered libraries anywhere in the U.S. through most of the 1900s, we encountered standardized cards that told volumes in just a few words. This richly illustrated work includes beautiful images not only of rare and well-known books, but of their LOC cards, many with handwritten inscriptions added by those who sought to bring order and clarity to a chaotic world.
This book first came to my attention when my brother Steve sent a link to a 2017 review along with a note to the family.
This story took me back to all those days in libraries…. I spent lots of time at the one in Cookeville where Mom was a one-woman staff for a long time. I would help bind books, glue return card pockets, and watch her type cards for the ubiquitous card catalog. I loved all that. Now I read on my pad and search online, rarely going to an actual library except to find a book old enough to not be available digitally. This article reminded me of how much I’ve lost, and how much I miss Mom.
In the Washington Post review, Michael Lindgren spoke for many who relished this part of the reading experience as he praised the beautifully produced, intelligently written and lavishly illustrated book. “It also sent me into a week-long depression. If you are a book lover of a certain age, it might do the same to you.”
I didn’t go into a depression, but it certainly called up many memories. And I came away agreeing with Constance Grady in Vox that “The Card Catalog makes a persuasive case that cataloging knowledge is fundamental to the acquisition and spread of knowledge.” In some ways it is a basic necessity of civilization.
At a time when libraries and librarians are under attack by the foes of democracy, we should all know the important role they have played, and will continue to play, in educating an informed citizenry. There are books about that. Just look it up!
More to come…
This Weekly Reader features links to recent articles, blog posts, or books that grabbed my interest or tickled my fancy. I hope you find something that makes you laugh, think, or cry.
Image of card catalog by Viktor Von from Pixabay
On my LinkedIn page, my friend Ray recommended that I check out the Nicholson Baker essay “Discards” which appears in his book “The Size of Thoughts.”
Pingback: January observations | More to Come...
Pingback: The books I read in January 2023 | More to Come...