The Card Catalog Is Dead. Long Live the Card Catalog.

Jon Foro on May 09, 2017

The Card Catalog: Books, Cards, and Literary TreasuresWho here remembers the venerable card catalog? For generations, these cabinets of narrow wooden drawers were the nerve centers for every library, the Universalis Cosmographia for navigating labyrinths of high steel shelves, gateways to the mysteries of the Dewey Decimal System. No school paper could be written without first thumbing its infinities of meticulously filed 3x5 cards, and a misplaced record could condemn a life's work to oblivion in the stacks. Just thinking about it makes me want to sneeze.

I'm sure there are relics and hold-outs stubbornly organizing far-flung collections - the coelacanths of Library Science - but like almost everything, the card catalog is destined for digitization and distribution. This is good: access to art, science, opinion, and experience contributes to a healthy democracy. If there's a downside, it's progress at the price of homogenization, sanitation. A physical card catalog is the living history of everyone who worked on it, sometimes across decades, the result of vast collaboration built on thousands of meticulously typed- or handwritten documents. A card catalog has personality.

Fortunate, then, that we have a record of the record-keepers. The Card Catalog: Books, Cards, and Literary Treasures celebrates the artifacts of the Library of Congress - and the people who knew where they were filed. Here we present the foreword by Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden, as well as images of the cards for a few special items from the collection. (If you'd like your own copies, try the companion notecards.)

Foreword to The Card Catalog

One of my first assignments when I began my library career was to file Library of Congress card catalog sets into a wooden case in a storefront branch of the Chicago Public Library. The importance of accuracy and the responsibility of the card catalog was impressed upon me.

For the better part of the twentieth century, the card catalog stood as the gateway to the wonders of a library’s collection. Now it is celebrated in this new book from the Library of Congress. The Card Catalog reflects an important, if unheralded, aspect of our national library—the profound impact of the catalog in organizing the Library’s vast holdings and the role of cooperative cataloging in helping isolated rural libraries serve their communities and larger libraries refine their collections.

Card Catalog

As Librarian of Congress, I appreciate the daunting challenges my pre­decessors faced in leading the world’s largest library, from former Librarian Herbert Putnam’s bold leadership in developing a system for distributing standardized cards to libraries nationwide to Henriette Avram’s extraordi­nary new technology that ushered in the modern age of the online catalog. How fortunate the Library of Congress was and is to have such a tireless and dedicated staff to carry out the different functions that make it one of the pil­lars of our democracy. I am honored to have the opportunity to build on the legacy and accomplishments of my predecessors as we continue to extend the sense of ownership and pride in our national treasures to all Americans.

Card Catalog

Just as the card catalog afforded Putnam the opportunity to provide easy access to the Library’s boundless resources, the tradition continues as digi­tization makes ever more items accessible to the public. Since the Library’s establishment in 1800, with a collection of 740 volumes and only three maps, it has grown into a diverse collection of more than 162 million items, includ­ing more than 38 million cataloged books and other print materials in 470 languages. The public is welcome to visit the Library of Congress in Washing­ton, D.C., or online at as we strive to ensure that all citizens can fully and freely access information, pursue knowledge, and make use of our shared cultural heritage.


Librarian of Congress

More images from The Card Catalog

(click for larger versions)

J.D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye



James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time



Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication on the Rights of Woman



John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath


800Steinbeck_grapes of wrath

Nathaniel Hawthorne: The Scarlet Letter: A Romance


800Hawthorne_Scarlett Letter

You might also like:

Subscribe to Omnivoracious: The Amazon Book Review, featuring picks for the best books of the month, author interviews, reading recommendations, and more from the Amazon Books editors.

Shop this article on

Lists + Reviews

Best Books Literature + Fiction Nonfiction Kids + Young Adult Mystery, Thriller + Suspense Science Fiction + Fantasy Comics + Graphic Novels Romance Eating + Drinking


Interviews Guest Essays Celebrity Picks

News + Features

News Features Awards Podcast


Omnivoracious, The Amazon Book Review

Feeds Facebook Twitter YouTube