Book Love

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.

The Card Catalog

The Card Catalog

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.

The Card Catalog

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.

—Peter Devereaux
Writer-Editor at The Library of Congress

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Here are some of our favorite cards from The Card Catalog:

The Iliad

The Iliad
Homer, Iliad. Baudry’s European Library, Paris, 1872. Alexander Pope translation.

The Iliad

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 Card Catalog: Shakespeare

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

The Card Catalog: Mary Wollstonecraft
Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, with Strictures on Political and Moral Subjects. Boston, P. Edes, 1792.

The Card Catalog: Mary Wollstonecraft
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.


American Cooke

The Card Catalog: Amelia Simmons
Amelia Simmons, American Cookery. Hartford, Hudson & Goodwin, 1796.

The Card Catalog: Amelia Simmons
The card is for a later facsimile of the first edition.


Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass

The Card Catalog: Frederick Douglass
Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. Boston, Anti-slavery Office, 1845.

The Card Catalog: Frederick Douglass

– – –

The Card Catalog

The Card Catalog is a wonderful tribute to the power of the written word—you can find it here.

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  • Megan April 10, 2017 at 2:23 pm

    Oh wow…….I have a small card catalog salvaged from a discarded circulation desk, and it is my favorite piece of furniture. I wish I could fill it with cards detailing our home library, but I can’t keep up! Can’t wait to see this book.


  • B.J.Lee April 13, 2017 at 9:00 am

    In 1991 when I worked in the library at The Boston Conservatory, we still had a card catalog.


  • Eileen Johnson April 13, 2017 at 3:59 pm

    I have not so subtlety mentioned to all who know me that this book would make an awesome birthday present for me in two weeks. We have two card catalogs that we refinished, one we use as a tv stand and the other is a 54 drawer one we use as a buffet/island in my kitchen. It’s my favorite piece! This book sounds awesome!


  • Sue May 9, 2017 at 6:41 am

    I was most disappointed by the little card catalog box with the 30 cards inside. A cute idea, but totally worthless in my opinion. I’m sorry I purchased it, and pray, tell me what are the little blue envelopes for?

    I do love card catalogs and will therefore try An Ode to the Card Catalog, if I can ever find somewhere on your website, other than your blog, a place to actually Buy something. Have been trying for more than 20 minutes!


    • Jenna Homen May 9, 2017 at 10:58 am

      Hi Sue! Jenna here, the Chronicle Books Community Manager. The Card Catalog box you mention is a notecard set—you use the cards to write your greeting, and then seal them up in those blue envelopes. A nice dose of nostalgia for the receiver!

      The book is called The Card Catalog, and the blog post links to it in the last sentence: Unfortunately it is out of stock, so that might be why you are having trouble. It’s been quite popular! We are due for more stock in June, or you can check your local indie bookstore to see if they have it. If you are still feeling confused by our website, please do email That will put you in touch with our Support Team who can help you out. Hope this helps, Sue!


  • Kristen Steele May 16, 2017 at 9:26 am

    As an avid reader and book lover my whole life, this really brings me back! I remember learning how to use the card catalog in elementary school. Computer versions might be quicker and take up less space, but there was something special about the look, feel, and even smell of the catalog.


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