Sunday, June 21, 2009

Battle of the Catalog Cards


"The battle as to whether 32 or 33 size cards are preferable has been waged up one side and down the other, and after quantities of oratorical blood have been spilt, the invariable result is that each side is more than ever convinced that they are in the right." - Agnes Van Valkenburgh, Head Cataloger of the Milwaukee Public Library, at the 1906 American Library Association Conference. In 1877 the American Library Association adopted two sizes of library catalog cards as standards for use by libraries. Under the influence of Melvil Dewey, a strong proponent of the metric system of measurement, the standard sizes were set in centimeters. The first size was 5 x 12 1/2 cm (approximately 2 x 5 inches). This was the size currently in use by Harvard College and the Boston Athenaeum. The second size was 7 1/2 x 12 1/2 cm (approximately 3 x 5 inches). The height of the second card was very similar to the height of Post Office Department pre-stamped postal cards, and this size was sometimes referred to as the postal size. The Library Bureau, the primary provider of library supplies, assigned no. 32 to the smaller card in its supply catalog and no. 33 to the larger card. The major argument in support of the smaller card was that it reduced the space required for catalog card cases. As the ALA Cooperation Committee which recommended the standard sizes said in its first report: "There is complaint that the cards take too much room, and some have expressed fears that the books might be compelled in time to camp outside the building to make room for the catalogue-cases." Those who argued for the larger size felt there was a need for more room for headings and additional book related information on the card. The push for cooperative cataloging and printed catalog cards was the major motive for moving toward a single standard. At the 1901 Waukesha, Wisconsin ALA Conference, Anderson H. Hopkins, Chair of the Cataloging Section, stated the goal: "Now what do we want? We want an arrangement whereby any one may be able at reasonable cost to get accurately made and well printed cards for any book at any time. This and nothing else will do." The ALA Publishing Board had been providing printed cards in both sizes but the Library of Congress was being encouraged to take on the production and distribution of printed catalog cards. The continuation of both formats by the Library of Congress was not seen as feasible. The overwhelming sentiment expressed at the Cataloging Section meeting at the Waukesha Conference was to go with the no. 33 size cards but with a wide border at the top and no printing below the punched hole on the catalog card. This would allow libraries using a no. 32 size card to cut the no. 33 card down to the smaller size and libraries using the no. 33 size cards to use the wider border at the top for subject headings. The Library of Congress did indeed begin the centralized printing and distribution of catalog cards in 1901 using the no. 33 size cards. In explaining the decision to do so, Librarian of Congress Herbert Putnam stated: "American instinct and habit revolt against multiplication of brain effort and outlay where a multiplication of results can be achieved by machinery. This appears to be a case where it may." The 7 1/2 x 12 1.2 cm size no. 33 catalog card is, of course, the standard catalog card used by almost all libraries up to the widespread demise of the card catalog. A number of libraries using the no. 32 size cards continued to use them for many years. The New York Mercantile Library was one of those libraries. The image above shows a card catalog at the New York Mercantile Library with no. 32 size cards. For more information on the evolution of the card catalog click here. There is a nice overview of the Harvard size catalog cards on the Harvard Law School Library Blog. A more recent post on Harvard's Catalogue Cards is located here.

1 comment:

Jim Carmichael said...

This is pricelessm, almost as price3less as the discussion, circa 1985, on whether AIDS could be contracted through circulating books, although that subject had already had a wooden stake driven through it at the turn of the century. I'm glad our perspective has broadened somewhat, and I will resist the temptation to become nostalgic about a day in which the size of library cards was the burning issue of the day