Card Catalogs

card catalog

On 1 October 2015, the card catalog died. It had been in decline for 25 years and I was surprised it made it that long. I remember going to the Bracken Library for the first time as a Ball State University undergrad. I instinctively headed toward the card catalog to start my search when a librarian pointed me toward rows of computers, explaining that the cards were no longer updated.

The library’s collection was now cataloged on computer. You could type in a search term and the computer would list the results for you. You could even do something card catalogs could not; you could search by “keyword.” If I remember correctly, when the librarian typed in the keyword “Shakespeare” as a demonstration, a list of about 5,000 books by, about, or titled Shakespeare was produced.

Once I learned how to navigate the database, I took my selections to check out. The person working the counter scanned the barcode on the books and the barcode on my Ball State ID card. “Beep, beep,” and I was on my way. There was a large, vacant cavity in the circulation desk where the borrowers’ cards used to be filed. (I think they redesigned the counter during my tenure.) The computer system was efficient and modern and I was duly impressed at the wonders of a big university library.

I admit that I still appreciate the efficiency of computer cataloging—being able to access a library’s online catalog, request books across a library system, and pick them up a few days later at my nearest branch is still cool—but, it is also less personal. My first memory of a card catalog was at the main branch of the Elkhart Public Library. My mom took me to get my first library card, which looked very much like this: (I am an image search junky at times!)


In the card catalog, I looked up whatever interested me (mostly World War II history) and then tracked down my quarry using the shelf numbers. I would take my finds to the circulation desk where the borrower’s card was taken from the back of the book, stamped with the due date and my library card, and then filed at the circulation desk. A date due card was slipped in its place in the pocket in the back of the book. It was a wonderful system.

Date Due

My elementary school libraries must have had card catalogs, but I don’t remember ever using them. The libraries were small enough that I could walk around and normally find what I wanted by browsing. Even in junior high, I don’t remember engaging with the card catalog much. Once I knew what section of the library held the books that interested me, I no longer searched for specifics. It wasn’t until high school that the library was large enough to make using the card catalog important. That, coupled with the need to write reports of more depth than I could harvest from the article on the subject in the World Book Encyclopedia.

When I was in college, I began to realize that I could learn things about books by the borrower’s cards. I could see the last time someone had checked out a particular book. Sometimes, the books I was checking out had not been used in a decade or more and I always felt a bit like I was rescuing an orphan from the street on those occasions. (Even though Bracken Library had “gone digital,” they still stamped the due date in the back of the book.)

Borrowers Cards

In smaller libraries, I’ve run across borrower’s cards like those pictured above where I could not only see the date, but who last checked out the book. These cards told a story, a story of a book. Looking at the cards above, maybe Mr. Johnson lost Boston, The Cradle of Liberty and couldn’t return it until he found it nine years later. At least Cyril Lane had the decency to renew it—the last three entries on the card are his. At one library with a small patronage, I even found that I knew some of the people who had checked out a book before me.

All that information is now digitized and hidden. Local librarians can probably pull up the circulation history on a particular book and it probably goes back much further than it used to. After all, borrower’s cards were usually replaced once they were full. But I can no longer see that information as I pull a title off the shelf and flip to the inside of the back cover. The barcode is now a fence to keep me, the casual observer, at bay from such privileged information as when the last time this volume was circulated. Due dates are printed on receipts for each transaction. The books now display less information than they used to, but I still wonder at their stories.


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