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The Card Catalog Is Officially Dead

Long live the card catalog

(Fred de Noyelle/Godong/Godong/Corbis)
smithsonian.com

It’s been a long time since most libraries were filled with card catalogs — drawers upon drawers of paper cards with information about books. But now, the final toll of the old-fashioned reference system’s death knell has rung for good: The library cooperative that printed and provided catalog cards has officially called it quits on the old-fashioned technology.

The news comes via the The Online Computer Library Center (OCLC). The cooperative, which created the world’s first shared, online catalog system back in 1971, allowed libraries to order custom-printed cards that could then be put in their own analog cataloging systems. Now, says OCLC, it’s time to lay a “largely symbolic” system that’s well past its prime to rest.

“Print library catalogs served a useful purpose for more than 100 years, making resources easy to find within the walls of the physical library,” Skip Prichard, CEO of OCLC, said in a blog post. Now, with comprehensive, cloud-based catalogs like OCLC’s WorldCat available to libraries, there’s just no need for cards any longer.

Catalog cards haven’t always been printed: In fact, good handwriting used to be a key skill for librarians. In an 1898 card catalog handbook, Melvil Dewey even gave instructions on what types of cursive should be used by catalogers on handwritten cards. “Legibility is the main consideration,” he wrote. “Skilful writers acquire reasonable speed without sacrificing legibility. The time of the writer is, however, of small importance compared with that of the reader.”

The official death of the catalog card was observed at OCLC’s headquarters by about a dozen workers, writes Dan Gearino for The Columbus Dispatch. The organization, which has printed a whopping 1.9 billion cards, sent its final shipment to a library in Concordia College in Bronxville, New York. But don’t think the college is the last holdout in an analog library world — in fact, writes Gearino, the school’s library only uses its card catalog as a backup for its computerized one.

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About Erin Blakemore
Erin Blakemore

Erin Blakemore is a Boulder, Colorado-based author and historian. Erin's work on history and culture has appeared in publications including mental_floss, NPR's This I Believe, The Onion, Popular Science, Modern Farmer and JSTOR Daily. You can find more of her work at erinblakemore.com.

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