What Are Card Catalogs?


A card catalog is an organizational tool that helps track items and their location. This tool uses a chest of many small, deep drawers containing hundreds of catalog cards. Each card measures approximately 3 inches by 5 inches. The card catalog is an antique system indigenous to libraries.

Catalog Card Information

  • Card catalogs were a convenient way for a library to track their many publications. The cards are arranged in alphabetical order, and each card represents one item in the collection. A user has three ways to look for an item in the library collection: by author, title or subject.

    The card catalog began in France when all books in religious houses became targets for the government. France decided to use the books to establish a system of public libraries. The inventory-takers used the blank side of playing cards to record bibliographic information for each book.

Address is Critical

  • It is easy to prepare new additions for the collection. However, there must be a logical method of storing these new additions. Melvin Dewey solved that problem, with the Dewey decimal system.

    All material on a single subject should be together. Although it is now history for most large libraries, some small libraries still use his system effectively.

Consumer-Friendly Storage

  • As long as a card catalog cabinet did not receive frequent use, the cards would remain in sequential alphabetical order. However, library patrons sometimes frequent removed the drawers. The drawers often took a spill and cards would scatter--not necessarily landing in alphabetical order.

    In the mid-1800s, a Harvard librarian became anxious about constantly refiling cards after a spill. Something had to secure the catalog cards in the drawer. Because catalog cards were 2 inches by 5 inches with a hole in the center of the bottom, a rod could pass through each card and stop at the back of the drawer. Spills were no longer a problem.

No Longer Contemporary

  • The next new design was a stackable model, allowing expansion to accommodate growth of a library collection. Meanwhile, the Library of Congress collection was growing out of control, and that library began to use an inventory system quite different from the Dewey decimal system.

    When the Library of Congress system was completed, consumers were beginning to familiarize themselves with the first generation of computers. Storage and location of holdings in a collection could fit nicely on a hard drive.

    The age of the card catalog was over, and this "invention" has passed quietly into antiquity after serving more than three centuries of organizational duty. Wooden card catalog cabinets have been simple to repurpose or recycle.

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