Promoting the appreciation, enjoyment, and preservation of our library heritage
Friday, June 24, 2016
Early Harvard College Library catalog card
Catalog card from a small Wisconsin public library
Last year OCLC, the global library cooperative that operates the world’s largest online union library catalog, announced that it was discontinuing its service of providing printed catalog cards to libraries. This follows decades of libraries transitioning from physical card catalogs to computerized and online catalogs. The Library of Congress which began distributing printed catalog cards to libraries in 1902 ended this service in 1997. Before there were printed catalog cards and typewritten library cards they were handwritten. In 1861 the Harvard College Library became the first library in the United States to use a public card catalog instead of a printed catalog as the primary method for library users to determine what books were available in the library. Harvard created its card catalog using female assistants to hand write the cards. By the start of the 20th century almost all libraries in the U.S. used card catalogs with most of the cards handwritten. Legible handwriting was critical and what became known as “the library hand” was fostered. Melvil Dewey was a proponent of a standardized “library hand”, and as late as 1916 the New York State Library School founded by Dewey was teaching Library Handwriting. David Kaminski, an independent researcher, has undertaken an in-depth study of library handwriting. His ongoing study is titled The Varieties and Complexities of American Handwriting and Penmanship: Library Hand and is available online. In his online compilation of information related to library handwriting, Kaminski includes an excerpt from a discussion of which took place between Melvil Dewey and other library leaders at the American Library Association Lake George Conference in 1885 concerning handwritten catalog cards and their replacement by typewritten catalog cards. Dewey was an advocate for the Hammond typewriter. Although typewritten and pre-printed catalog cards replaced handwritten catalog cards starting in the late 19th century and early 20th century. Some small libraries continued to use handwritten cards well into the 20th century.