Retrofitting: Using the Old Card Catalog in a Novel Way

I’m sure many of you reading this blog can understand the pleasure experienced when you find intersections between your academics and real-life, hands-on work. In this case, I was completely ecstatic when I was given a project that involved going into the old card catalog, which is where many of the original paper cards for the Library’s holdings are located and what the librarians used before the card catalog was digitized, to find cards for a “best” books project commissioned by an outside publishing company. The publisher wants to make a set of notecards based on the old card catalog cards of classic books such as The Great Gatsby, Leaves of Grass, Jane Eyre, and Walden. The publishing company asked the Library of Congress Publishing Office to locate cards for these titles that were particularly appealing based on the librarian’s notes and the look of the individual cards. The publishing company would then choose their favorite fifty cards for inclusion in the notecard set. The publisher provided my office with a list of seventy books. I went down to the stacks with my fellow intern and a work colleague, divided the list in half, and began searching. Here’s a picture of the card catalog. It occupies one long corridor and three smaller corridors all of which are lined with drawers. Here’s a picture from the perspective of looking down one end of the long corridor to the other end.

As a rising senior English major, I recently finished Junior Seminar, which culminated in studying Ulysses by James Joyce. Even though it was a very difficult text to get through and understand, I simply love it and consider it one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done, so I’m sure you can understand my joy when I saw that one of the books the publisher included on their list was Ulysses. Well, I found the book’s card and it was simply beautiful. The cards in the card catalog are either handwritten or typed on a typewriter, so I was very happy to find that the original card for this copy of Ulysses was written in beautiful script and read, “This edition is limited to 2000 copies on handmade paper…no. 417.” I thought it was so cool that the Library holds the 417th copy of one of the earliest editions of Ulysses, in addition to a copy of the first edition. It was a fun, accidental merging my work and school. It’s always so exciting when you make those little discoveries! We couldn’t find all of the cards in the old catalog though, so my work colleague and I investigated into the existence of other catalogs and we discovered that there are many of them for different mediums. We even read a whole book on the card catalog system at the Library. So if you have any questions about it, I might be able to help!

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