An Ode to the Card Catalog
From the Library of Congress, The Card Catalog takes readers on a treasure hunt through the history of our most beloved books. Teeming with over 200 images of original catalog cards, first edition book covers, and photos from magnificent archives of the Library of Congress, this collection is a visual celebration of one of the world’s most famous libraries and the brilliant catalog system that has kept it organized for hundreds of years.
Here we share the introduction of the book written by Peter Devereaux, Writer-Editor at The Library of Congress.
Wandering the stacks at the Library of Congress can be as overwhelming as it is inspiring. Drifting through the maze of bookshelves evokes images of Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges’s fictional Library of Babel—a seemingly infinite labyrinth of books.
Being surrounded by the collected memory of the human race is a reminder of the intrinsic desire for both knowledge and organization. Ever since the emergence of the written word, humans have scribbled down myths, stories, histories, and natural observations and worked tirelessly to gather and protect these fragments of a shared past.
Evolving alongside, in the shadows of the written word, was one of the most versatile and durable technologies in history: the library catalog—a road map for navigating this wilderness of books. The humble yet powerful card catalog progressed slowly and, like countless other important inventions, owes its existence to a number of brilliant thinkers, as well as to the twists and turns of history.
From the peculiar and idiosyncratic methods of ancient libraries to far more intricate, comprehensive modern attempts, library catalogs are a tangible example of humanity’s effort to establish and preserve the possibility of order.
Assembled in handsome oak cabinets, the card catalog once framed the palatial Main Reading Room at the Library of Congress. It has now fallen to the exigencies of modern life, replaced by the flickering screens of the online computer catalog. One would need to venture farther into the stacks to find the Main Card Catalog.
Opening a drawer and flipping through the well-worn cards, many handwritten and filled with marginalia containing valuable information not to be found in an Internet search, leaves one with a sense of awe at how catalogers distilled so much information onto simple 3-by-5-inch index cards—cards that still sit neatly filed, waiting to reveal the treasures hidden in the hundreds of miles of Library stacks on Capitol Hill.
Writer-Editor at The Library of Congress
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Here are some of our favorite cards from The Card Catalog:
Homer, Iliad. Baudry’s European Library, Paris, 1872. Alexander Pope translation.
The card featured here is for the 1852 edition of Alexander Pope’s famous translation of the Iliad, a translation that was praised by Samuel Johnson as “a performance which no age or nation could hope to equal.”
Shakespeare’s First Folio
Mr. William Shakespeares Comedies, Histories & Tragedies: Published according to the True Originall Copies. Printed by Isaac Jaggard and Ed. Blount, London, 1623.
The First Folio, as this edition is referred to, has been called “the most intrinsically valuable book in English.”
A Vindication of the Rights of Women
Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, with Strictures on Political and Moral Subjects. Boston, P. Edes, 1792.
Wollstonecraft’s book is considered a literary cornerstone in the struggle for women’s rights. She clearly stated the need for raising the status of women and inspired women on both sides of the Atlantic to action.
Amelia Simmons, American Cookery. Hartford, Hudson & Goodwin, 1796.
The card is for a later facsimile of the first edition.
Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass
Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. Boston, Anti-slavery Office, 1845.
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The Card Catalog is a wonderful tribute to the power of the written word—you can find it here.
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