What Is A Library Card Catalog and How Is It Used?

The card catalog was the standard method of locating books in libraries for generations older than 40. No doubt you have never seen or used a card catalog if you are younger than 30. You may have never seen one in your life.

However, card catalogs continue to exist today.


What is a Card Catalog?

A card catalog is a system that helps to organize library materials. It was invented by Melvil Dewey, who also invented the Dewey Decimal System. The card catalog is made up of index cards with information about the books and other library materials. This is how you would use a card catalog in a library.

The card catalog was invented before the index.

The card catalog is an alphabetical list of books in the library, filed by author, title, or subject. The index is a list of keywords (or phrases) with their page numbers that direct readers to the location where a book's full text can be found.

Library catalogs have been around for centuries and they are still going strong. The earliest records of library catalogs dating back to the first century. 

The first known library card catalog is from the library of Alexandria in Egypt, built in the third century BCE. It's said that it inspired Leonardo da Vinci to design a similar system for his personal use.

Library catalogs were originally created to help librarians keep track of their books, but they also serve as a great way for patrons to find what they are looking for. Library catalogs are important tools used to find books and other materials.

card catalog cards

The primary goals of a library catalog are to help patrons find:

  • if the library has a certain item; 
  • whether works by a given author exist in the collection;
  • which editions of a particular work are owned by the library; and - what resources the library owns on a particular topic.

The History of the Card Catalog and How it Revolutionized Library Organization

The card catalog was a revolutionary invention for libraries. Before the card catalog, libraries were organized by subject. This meant that if someone wanted to find a book about a specific topic, they had to search through many different sections of the library. 

The first examples of what we now call library catalogs were thick booklets that detailed the collection of a single institution.

Book catalogs continued to be widely used long into the 19th century. As collections grew, they ran across one major issue. New items must be added to the catalog by hand in the spaces between existing entries or in the margins.

After some time, at least part of the pages may become unreadable. Then a new comprehensive catalog has to be produced.

The government of France seized libraries belonging to monks and aristocrats as well as the historic royal library during the French Revolution. The full inventory was mandated by the Constituent Assembly.

Paper needed to print a book catalog was scarce due to the conflict and instability. But books weren't the only thing the authorities had seized. Decks of playing cards were also confiscated. The backs of these cards were blank and much bigger than today's playing cards.

To take inventory, these cards were used to record details such as titles, authors, and publication dates. If there was no author listed, a term in the title would be highlighted to indicate where the book belonged in the stacks.

This means that the contemporary card catalog was accidentally created by the French. Nothing much came of it, like many other lesser-known inventions of the period.

When William Croswell was hired to create a catalog for Harvard University book in 1812, he started cutting the outdated 1790 catalog into slips. This inspired the librarian, Thaddeus William Harris, to create a "slip catalog" for the staff to use.

library card catalog system

The Golden Age of Card Catalogs

In the 1870s, card catalogs first appeared in libraries across the United States and Great Britain.

When these cards initially appeared, they had to be handwritten. To develop a "library hand," Melville Dewey and Thomas Edison worked together. It was then necessary for librarians to possess legible or good handwriting.

In addition to his library, Dewey established the Library Bureau in 1881 to sell materials to libraries. As early as 1886, the company started selling catalog card holders alongside the cards themselves.

The card catalog's primary benefit over the book catalog is that it allows for the quick and easy filing of new purchases without rendering any previously recorded information outdated. It then became simple to add new book addition.

All of a book's bibliographic details may be found in its “main entry” in a card catalog. A common practice was to catalog it under the author's name. Title, authors, alternative titles, topic headers, and anything else that looked relevant were all included in the supplementary entry.

The supplementary entries on cards handwritten by librarians often included just enough information to direct curious readers to the primary entry.

The Library of Congress started selling printed decks of cards in 1901. It was much simpler to distribute sets of identical cards, one for the primary entry and one for the extra entries when the cards were printed.

Libraries only needed to add the new information on the top of the cards after acquiring them.

During the heyday of the card catalog, libraries also tried to settle on a standard set of criteria for classifying their collections. This would allow a user of one library's catalog to utilize the catalog of another library without having to learn the specifics of each institution's system.


What are the Different Types of Library Card Catalogs?


There are three types of library card catalogs:

  1. Open-shelf card catalogs: These are the traditional card catalogs that we see in libraries. They have a list of books and their call numbers that you can access by scanning the book's barcode or typing in its call number.
  1. Closed-shelf card catalogs: This type of library has a list of books and their call numbers, but the books are not available for circulation. Instead, you need to request them from the library staff and they will be delivered to your desk or a designated reading area for you to read them there.
  1. Remote online catalogs: This is an online database that contains information about all the books in a library's collection, including their call numbers, authors, and location in the library.
  1. Electronic catalogs: This is an online database that allows people to search for books, but some libraries use online databases that don't require Internet access to view the information.

library index card

The Basics of the Card Catalog

The information shown on the card follows a certain structure. At the top of each card catalog item is the name of the book's author. In cases when no individual can be identified as the book's author, the relevant institution, organization, or publishing house is noted instead. 

Unless the card catalog follows a title index, the title comes next. It's common practice to quote titles. The subject matter comes right after the heading. Three to five topics that best characterize the book's purpose may be included here. This part helps the researcher decide whether or not the title is worth pursuing.

The International Standard Book Number (ISBN), release date, and publishing house are also included for added indexing convenience. The library uses the Dewey Decimal Classification to help sort books into their many sections. As a standard, the DDC will be printed in the upper left corner of the card for easy indexing and cross-referencing.


How to Use a Card Catalog in a Library or Home Libraries?

The Online Public Access Catalog (OPAC) has largely superseded traditional card catalogs (sometimes "card catalogs") in public and academic libraries (OPAC). The card catalog was formerly the primary method for customers to locate books and reference materials; nonetheless, some libraries still use them, or at least a subset of them. When it comes to referring to out-of-print books and periodicals, card catalogs really shine.

Search by Subject, Author, and Date Range

If you need to look up information on a certain topic, a card catalog is a way to go. According to The Harvard Crimson, comprehensive card catalogs include over 450 primary topic categories, including "music," "law," "agricultural," and "biography." 

Use the author's name (it's the first subheading next to the topic) to quickly locate works of broad interest in each section. Reference materials, such as dictionaries, magazines, journals, and society reports, may be found after the more broad reference materials. According to Ohio Reference Excellence, it's best to begin your search with the most particular heading possible and then widen it if necessary.

Search for Indirect Subjects Subheadings

If the term "Indirect" appears in parentheses next to the subject, it indicates that there is further information on the topic that may be found elsewhere. When you see the word "Indirect," it indicates that there are further subheadings that are linked to this one. 

Search for Basic Information

When doing a catalog search, you may skip over the a, an, and the at the beginning of a title. In this alphabet, each word is arranged according to how it is spelled. Books and topics that may be described by an initial or acronym can be found in the section corresponding to that letter of the alphabet. Sort the words that are the same by author, topic, and/or title.

For instance, the University of Illinois has the author Music Antonio Zoran, 1909-2005, the topic Music, and the title Music at Midnight by Muriel Draper. The book's publisher, release date, location, and page count are all included on the individual cards that feature that book.

Search for Location in the Library

To find the book or reference material in the library, use the numbers and letters in the top left corner of the card. If the first part of the record is a number, such as 370.1 for a book on education in the social sciences area, then you'll find it in the nonfiction section. 

Use the call number to get to the correct location in the book. Alternatively, if the record's first character is an acronym for the author's last name, like "SEN" for Maurice Sendak, you'll want to look in the fiction area. Stories are shelved according to the alphabetical order of their authors' surnames.

The Advantages of Traditional Card Catalogs

Admittedly, more and more people are using digital catalogs, but there are many benefits and advantages to using a traditional one. Here are some of them:


A card catalog system is a great way to store information. It is flexible and easy to use. The cards are organized in alphabetical order, so it is easy to find the card that you need.

You can remove or change the cards whenever you want as well. Storing information in a card catalog system is also easy. You can just place your card in the slot and it will be sorted alphabetically.

Ease of Use

One of the benefits of using a card catalog is its ease of use. The card catalog is easy to navigate as it uses an alphabetical approach. For example, books on animals would be sorted in the section on 'Animals'. This is easier for a librarian looking for a book on the topic of animals. 

A card catalog has certain advantages. It gives users an easy way to find books, which is helpful for people who are not familiar with the library.

The alphabetical approach of a card catalog also helps students and researchers find books more easily. This means that users do not have to remember the Dewey decimal system.


Another advantage of using a card catalog is that it facilitates the availability of books. A card catalog can help you find other books with a similar topic pretty easily. For example, if you know there is a book on the Egyptian pharaohs in the catalog, you can search for books about Rome. 

A card catalog system can be easily expanded as needed. As more books are added to the system, it becomes easier to find new and different topics. The card catalog is at the heart of the Dewey decimal system.

If you have your collection of books and you want to keep track of where everything is, you might want to create your card catalog. You can store all the cards in this gorgeous card catalog desktop organizer, which will fit your library card catalog.

card catalog organizer

Made of natural wood with an elegant finish, this drawer boasts 9 drawers and 1 large one at the bottom. Place this on your counter, desk, or table, and you will keep things organized. It’s gorgeous. It has a rustic finish, and it could easily match your home décor or furniture.

See all the card catalogs we have to offer here