Tuesday, May 1, 2012

How the Library Catalog Card Transformed the Business World

In his book Paper Machines: About Cards & Catalogs, 1548-1929 (MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2011) Markus Krajewski tells the fascinating story (to a library history buff) of how the idea of putting information on individual pieces of paper and filing them in a prescribed manner became a significant tool in the world of business in the U.S. and Europe. Krajewski's story begins with Konrad Gessner, a 16th century doctor, and the methodology he used to compile his publication Bibliotheca Universalis. It is Krajewski's description of the role played by the Library Bureau company, founded by Melvil Dewey, in transferring library catalog card methodology to the business world, however, that I found most interesting. Krajewski recounts both the development of the use of catalog cards by libraries in the U.S. and the early struggles of Library Bureau as a business.  Krajewski reveals that it was E. W. Sherman, a female accountant working for Library Bureau, and not Dewey, who recognized the practical application of library catalog card filing methodology to business. Her experimentation with the use of catalog cards for accounting records was the initial stimulus for Library Bureau's expansion into the business world which proved immensely successful. Krajewski writes: "In 1909 Library Bureau controls more that 10 factories, 32 agent offices in American and European cities, and 3,000 office workers. A small department for library supplies overcomes financial plights and turns into a thriving corporation, opening a hitherto virtually nonexistent market."  The business world adopted the methodology of the catalog card and index to such a degree that by 1929, the ending point of Krajewski's history, a card file is on practically every business desk. Krajewski quotes this testimonial from a 1929 German business equipment catalog: "Card catalogs can maintain order among tens of thousands of small and large items in the warehouse management of large industrial plants, they can structure any number of addresses in personnel departments, they can control the movement of hundreds of thousands of people in urban registration offices, they can make themselves useful in bookkeeping departments of commercial offices, i.e. as open account catalogs, etc. etc. Card catalogs can do anything!" Markus Krajewski is Associate Professor of Media History at the Bauhaus University, Weimar, Germany. I first became aware of his work when he commented on one of my most popular posts about the playing cards repurposed by the French as library catalog cards in the late 18th century. My description of Karjewski's book doesn't do it justice. I highly recommend that you read it yourself. The 18th century french catalog card repurposed from a playing card shown below is from my collection of three such cards.

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