Tuesday, March 15, 2011
First Catalog Cards
The first library catalog cards came about as the result of the repurposing of 18th century French playing cards. In 1789 the French revolutionary government confiscated all religious property including library holdings. The books in these libraries were used to set up a system of public libraries. A step toward the creation of these public libraries was to inventory all books. Instructions for doing this led to the creation of the "French Cataloging Code of 1791". The backs of playing cards were used to record bibliographic data for the books. Possible reasons for using playing cards include: paper was in short supply; playing cards were sturdy; and the backs of playing cards had been previously used for other purposes in France including marriage and death certificates. Although paper slips may have previously been used to assist in the creation of book catalogs, this is the first instance when the slips/cards were to serve as the permanent record for bibliographic data. The source for this information is Sandy Brooks' article "A history of the card catalog" in The Whole Library Handbook 3 (ALA, 2000) compiled George M. Eberhart. The reason I'm writing this post is that I have recently acquired an actual example of one of the catalog cards created in France in the 18th century (shown above). In doing so I learned that what are described as "secondary use playing cards" are a category of collectible ephemera. My catalog card references a book that was published in 1624. There is a bibliographic record for a later edition of the same book in WorldCat. How far we've come!