Library catalog

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The card catalog at Yale University's Sterling Memorial Library Yale card catalog.jpg
The card catalog at Yale University's Sterling Memorial Library
Another view of the SML card catalog SML-Card-Catalog.jpg
Another view of the SML card catalog
The card catalog in Manchester Central Library 2010 Manchester UK 4467481691.jpg
The card catalog in Manchester Central Library
Finding aids are utilized to assist information professionals and researchers find materials within an archive LOC Main Reading Room Highsmith.jpg
Finding aids are utilized to assist information professionals and researchers find materials within an archive
The Card Catalog at the Library of Congress Library Of Congress Card Catalog.jpg
The Card Catalog at the Library of Congress

A library catalog (or library catalogue in British English) is a register of all bibliographic items found in a library or group of libraries, such as a network of libraries at several locations. A catalog for a group of libraries is also called a union catalog. A bibliographic item can be any information entity (e.g., books, computer files, graphics, realia, cartographic materials, etc.) that is considered library material (e.g., a single novel in an anthology), or a group of library materials (e.g., a trilogy), or linked from the catalog (e.g., a webpage) as far as it is relevant to the catalog and to the users (patrons) of the library.


The card catalog was a familiar sight to library users for generations, but it has been effectively replaced by the online public access catalog (OPAC). Some still refer to the online catalog as a "card catalog". [2] Some libraries with OPAC access still have card catalogs on site, but these are now strictly a secondary resource and are seldom updated. Many libraries that retain their physical card catalog will post a sign advising the last year that the card catalog was updated. Some libraries have eliminated their card catalog in favor of the OPAC for the purpose of saving space for other use, such as additional shelving.

The largest international library catalog in the world is the WorldCat union catalog managed by the non-profit library cooperative OCLC. [3] In January 2021, WorldCat had over 500,000,000 catalog records and over 3 billion library holdings. [4]

Card catalog at Yale Yale VI.JPG
Card catalog at Yale


Illustration from Manual of library classification and shelf arrangement, 1898 Card catalog from page 167 of "Manual of library classification and shelf arrangement" (1898).jpg
Illustration from Manual of library classification and shelf arrangement, 1898

Charles Ammi Cutter made the first explicit statement regarding the objectives of a bibliographic system in his Rules for a Printed Dictionary Catalog in 1876. [5] According to Cutter, those objectives were

1. to enable a person to find a book of which either (Identifying objective)

2. to show what the library has (Collocating objective)

3. to assist in the choice of a book (Evaluating objective)

These objectives can still be recognized in more modern definitions [6] formulated throughout the 20th century. 1960/61 Cutter's objectives were revised by Lubetzky and the Conference on Cataloging Principles (CCP) in Paris. The latest attempt to describe a library catalog's goals and functions was made in 1998 with Functional Requirements for Bibliographic Records (FRBR) which defines four user tasks: find, identify, select, and obtain.

A catalog helps to serve as an inventory or bookkeeping of the library's contents. If an item is not found in the catalog, the user may continue their search at another library.

Catalog card

A catalog card is an individual entry in a library catalog containing bibliographic information, including author's name, book title, and even approximate location. Eventually the mechanization of the modern era brought the efficiencies of card catalogs. It was around 1780 that the first card catalog appeared in Vienna. It solved the problems of the structural catalogs in marble and clay from ancient times and the later codex—handwritten and bound—catalogs that were manifestly inflexible and presented high costs in editing to reflect a changing collection.[ citation needed ] The first cards may have been French playing cards, which in the 1700s were blank on one side. [7]

In November 1789, during the dechristianization of France during the French Revolution, the process of collecting all books from religious houses was initiated. Using these books in a new system of public libraries included an inventory of all books. The backs of the playing cards contained the bibliographic information for each book and this inventory became known as the "French Cataloging Code of 1791". [8]

English inventor Francis Ronalds began using a catalog of cards to manage his growing book collection around 1815, which has been denoted as the first practical use of the system. [9] [10] In the mid-1800s, Natale Battezzati, an Italian publisher, developed a card system for booksellers in which cards represented authors, titles and subjects. Very shortly afterward, Melvil Dewey and other American librarians began to champion the card catalog because of its great expandability. In some libraries books were cataloged based on the size of the book while other libraries organized based only on the author's name. [11] This made finding a book difficult.

The first issue of Library Journal , the official publication of the American Library Association (ALA), made clear that the most pressing issues facing libraries were the lack of a standardized catalog and an agency to administer a centralized catalog. Responding to the standardization matter, the ALA formed a committee that quickly recommended the 2-by-5-inch (5 cm × 13 cm) "Harvard College-size" cards as used at Harvard and the Boston Athenaeum. However, in the same report, the committee also suggested that a larger card, approximately 3 by 5 inches (8 cm × 13 cm), would be preferable. By the end of the nineteenth century, the bigger card won out, mainly to the fact that the 3-by-5-inch (8 cm × 13 cm) card was already the "postal size" used for postcards.

Melvil Dewey saw well beyond the importance of standardized cards and sought to outfit virtually all facets of library operations. To the end he established a Supplies Department as part of the ALA, later to become a stand-alone company renamed the Library Bureau. In one of its early distribution catalogs, the bureau pointed out that "no other business had been organized with the definite purpose of supplying libraries". With a focus on machine-cut index cards and the trays and cabinets to contain them, the Library Bureau became a veritable furniture store, selling tables, chairs, shelves and display cases, as well as date stamps, newspaper holders, hole punchers, paper weights, and virtually anything else a library could possibly need. With this one-stop shopping service, Dewey left an enduring mark on libraries across the country. Uniformity spread from library to library. [12]

Dewey and others devised a system where books were organized by subject, then alphabetized based on the author's name. Each book was assigned a call number which identified the subject and location, with a decimal point dividing different sections of the call number. The call number on the card matched a number written on the spine of each book. [11] In 1860, Ezra Abbot began designing a card catalog that was easily accessible and secure for keeping the cards in order; he managed this by placing the cards on edge between two wooden blocks. He published his findings in the annual report of the library for 1863 and they were adopted by many American libraries. [8]

Work on the catalog began in 1862 and within the first year, 35,762 catalog cards had been created. Catalog cards were 2 by 5 inches (5 cm × 13 cm); the Harvard College size. One of the first acts of the newly formed American Library Association in 1908 was to set standards for the size of the cards used in American libraries, thus making their manufacture and the manufacture of cabinets, uniform. [7] OCLC, major supplier of catalog cards, printed the last one in October 2015. [13]

In a physical catalog, the information about each item is on a separate card, which is placed in order in the catalog drawer depending on the type of record. If it was a non-fiction record, Charles A. Cutter's classification system would help the patron find the book they wanted in a quick fashion. Cutter's classification system is as follows: [14]


Sample card catalog record Sample Catalog Record.png
Sample card catalog record

Traditionally, there are the following types of catalog:

Card from card catalog. The fine art of literary mayhem by Myrick Land Card from card catalog.jpg
Card from card catalog. The fine art of literary mayhem by Myrick Land


Hellenistic catalog of the Gymnasium of Taormina Insciptio library catalog hellenistic Taormina 121842.jpg
Hellenistic catalog of the Gymnasium of Taormina
The catalog of the Library of the Republic of Venice, published in 1624. Sozomeno, Giovanni - Catalogus librorum Bibliothecae Venetae, 1624 - BEIC 13864391.jpg
The catalog of the Library of the Republic of Venice, published in 1624.
A card catalog in the University Library of Graz Schlagwortkatalog.jpg
A card catalog in the University Library of Graz

The earliest librarians created rules for how to record the details of the catalog. By 700 BCE the Assyrians followed the rules set down by the Babylonians. The seventh century BCE Babylonian Library of Ashurbanipal was led by the librarian Ibnissaru who prescribed a catalog of clay tablets by subject. Subject catalogs were the rule of the day, and author catalogs were unknown at that time. The frequent use of subject-only catalogs hints that there was a code of practice among early catalog librarians and that they followed some set of rules for subject assignment and the recording of the details of each item. These rules created efficiency through consistency—the catalog librarian knew how to record each item without reinventing the rules each time, and the reader knew what to expect with each visit. The task of recording the contents of libraries is more than an instinct or a compulsive tic exercised by librarians; it began as a way to broadcast to readers what is available among the stacks of materials. The tradition of open stacks of printed books is paradigmatic to modern American library users, but ancient libraries featured stacks of clay or prepaper scrolls that resisted browsing.[ citation needed ]

As librarian, Gottfried van Swieten introduced the world's first card catalog (1780) as the Prefect of the Imperial Library, Austria.[ citation needed ]

During the early modern period, libraries were organized through the direction of the librarian in charge. There was no universal method, so some books were organized by language or book material, for example, but most scholarly libraries had recognizable categories (like philosophy, saints, mathematics). The first library to list titles alphabetically under each subject was the Sorbonne library in Paris. Library catalogs originated as manuscript lists, arranged by format (folio, quarto, etc.) or in a rough alphabetical arrangement by author. Before printing, librarians had to enter new acquisitions into the margins of the catalog list until a new one was created. Because of the nature of creating texts at this time, most catalogs were not able to keep up with new acquisitions. [16]

When the printing press became well-established, strict cataloging became necessary because of the influx of printed materials. Printed catalogs, sometimes called dictionary catalogs, began to be published in the early modern period and enabled scholars outside a library to gain an idea of its contents. [17] Copies of these in the library itself would sometimes be interleaved with blank leaves on which additions could be recorded, or bound as guardbooks in which slips of paper were bound in for new entries. Slips could also be kept loose in cardboard or tin boxes, stored on shelves. The first card catalogs appeared in the late 19th century after the standardization of the 5 in. x 3 in. card for personal filing systems, enabling much more flexibility, and towards the end of the 20th century the online public access catalog was developed (see below). These gradually became more common as some libraries progressively abandoned such other catalog formats as paper slips (either loose or in sheaf catalog form), and guardbooks. The beginning of the Library of Congress's catalog card service in 1911 led to the use of these cards in the majority of American libraries. An equivalent scheme in the United Kingdom was operated by the British National Bibliography from 1956 [18] and was subscribed to by many public and other libraries.

More about the early history of library catalogs has been collected in 1956 by Strout. [29]


Librarian at the card files at a senior high school in New Ulm, Minnesota (1974) Librarian at the card files at a senior high school in New Ulm, Minnesota.jpg
Librarian at the card files at a senior high school in New Ulm, Minnesota (1974)

In a title catalog, one can distinguish two sort orders:

The grammatical sort order has the advantage that often, the most important word of the title is also a good keyword (question 3), and it is the word most users remember first when their memory is incomplete. However, it has the disadvantage that many elaborate grammatical rules are needed, so that only expert users may be able to search the catalog without help from a librarian.

In some catalogs, persons' names are standardized (i. e., the name of the person is always cataloged and sorted in a standard form) even if it appears differently in the library material. This standardization is achieved by a process called authority control. Simply put, authority control is defined as the establishment and maintenance of consistent forms of terms – such as names, subjects, and titles – to be used as headings in bibliographic records. [30] An advantage of the authority control is that it is easier to answer question 2 (Which works of some author does the library have?). On the other hand, it may be more difficult to answer question 1 (Does the library have some specific material?) if the material spells the author in a peculiar variant. For the cataloger, it may incur too much work to check whether Smith, J. is Smith, John or Smith, Jack.

For some works, even the title can be standardized. The technical term for this is uniform title . For example, translations and re-editions are sometimes sorted under their original title. In many catalogs, parts of the Bible are sorted under the standard name of the book(s) they contain. The plays of William Shakespeare are another frequently cited example of the role played by a uniform title in the library catalog.

Many complications about alphabetic sorting of entries arise. Some examples:


In a subject catalog, one has to decide on which classification system to use. The cataloger will select appropriate subject headings for the bibliographic item and a unique classification number (sometimes known as a "call number") which is used not only for identification but also for the purposes of shelving, placing items with similar subjects near one another, which aids in browsing by library users, who are thus often able to take advantage of serendipity in their search process.

Online catalogs

Dynix, an early but popular and long-lasting online catalog Dynix-Main-Menu-via-Telnet.jpg
Dynix, an early but popular and long-lasting online catalog
Card Division, United States Library of Congress, 1910s or 1920s Card Division of the Library of Congress 3c18631u original.jpg
Card Division, United States Library of Congress, 1910s or 1920s

Online cataloging, through such systems as the Dynix software [31] developed in 1983 and used widely through the late 1990s, [32] has greatly enhanced the usability of catalogs, thanks to the rise of MARC standards (an acronym for MAchine Readable Cataloging) in the 1960s. [33]

Rules governing the creation of MARC catalog records include not only formal cataloging rules such as Anglo-American Cataloguing Rules, second edition (AACR2), [34] Resource Description and Access (RDA) [35] but also rules specific to MARC, available from both the U.S. Library of Congress and from OCLC, which builds and maintains WorldCat. [36]

MARC was originally used to automate the creation of physical catalog cards, but its use evolved into direct access to the MARC computer files during the search process. [37]

OPACs have enhanced usability over traditional card formats because: [38]

  1. The online catalog does not need to be sorted statically; the user can choose author, title, keyword, or systematic order dynamically.
  2. Most online catalogs allow searching for any word in a title or other field, increasing the ways to find a record.
  3. Many online catalogs allow links between several variants of an author's name.
  4. The elimination of paper cards has made the information more accessible to many people with disabilities, such as the visually impaired, wheelchair users, and those who suffer from mold allergies or other paper- or building-related problems.
  5. Physical storage space is considerably reduced.
  6. Updates are significantly more efficient.

See also

Related Research Articles

Dewey Decimal Classification Library classification system

The Dewey Decimal Classification (DDC), colloquially the Dewey Decimal System, is a proprietary library classification system first published in the United States by Melvil Dewey in 1876. Originally described in a four-page pamphlet, it has been expanded to multiple volumes and revised through 23 major editions, the latest printed in 2011. It is also available in an abridged version suitable for smaller libraries. OCLC, a non-profit cooperative that serves libraries, currently maintains the system and licenses online access to WebDewey, a continuously updated version for catalogers.

Reference desk Public service counter in a library

The reference desk or information desk of a library is a public service counter where professional librarians provide library users with direction to library materials, advice on library collections and services, and expertise on multiple kinds of information from multiple sources.

Library classification Systems of coding and organizing documents or library materials

A library classification is a system of knowledge organization by which library resources are arranged and ordered systematically. Library classifications use a notational system that represents the order of topics in the classification and allows items to be stored in that order. Library classification systems group related materials together, typically arranged as a hierarchical tree structure. A different kind of classification system, called a faceted classification system, is also widely used, which allows the assignment of multiple classifications to an object, enabling the classifications to be ordered in many ways.

Reference work Publication to which one can refer for confirmed facts

A reference work is a work, such as a book or periodical, to which one can refer for information. The information is intended to be found quickly when needed. Such works are usually referred to for particular pieces of information, rather than read beginning to end. The writing style used in these works is informative; the authors avoid use of the first person, and emphasize facts.

This page is a glossary of library and information science.

The online public access catalog, often abbreviated OPAC, and frequently synonymous with library catalog, is an online database of materials held by a library or group of libraries. Online catalogs progressed from analog card catalogs, and similarly enable searching the library's collection of books and other materials.

Charles Ammi Cutter

Charles Ammi Cutter was an American librarian. In the 1850s and 1860s he assisted with the re-cataloging of the Harvard College library, producing America's first public card catalog. The card system proved more flexible for librarians and far more useful to patrons than the old method of entering titles in chronological order in large books. In 1868 he joined the Boston Athenaeum, making its card catalog an international model. Cutter promoted centralized cataloging of books, which became the standard practice at the Library of Congress. He was elected to leadership positions in numerous library organizations at the local and national level. Cutter is remembered for the Cutter Expansive Classification, his system of giving standardized classification numbers to each book, and arranging them on shelves by that number so that books on similar topics would be shelved together.

Landsbókasafn Íslands – Háskólabókasafn is the national library of Iceland which also functions as the university library of the University of Iceland. The library was established on December 1, 1994 in Reykjavík, Iceland, with the merger of the former national library, Landsbókasafn Íslands, and the university library. It is by far the largest library in Iceland with about one million items in various collections. The library's largest collection is the national collection containing almost all written works published in Iceland and items related to Iceland published elsewhere. The library is the main legal deposit library in Iceland. The library also has a large manuscript collection with mostly early modern and modern manuscripts, and a collection of published Icelandic music and other audio. The library houses the largest academic collection in Iceland, most of which can be borrowed for off-site use by holders of library cards. University students get library cards for free, but anyone can acquire a card for a small fee. The library is open for public access.

An index is a list of words or phrases ('headings') and associated pointers ('locators') to where useful material relating to that heading can be found in a document or collection of documents. Examples are an index in the back matter of a book and an index that serves as a library catalog.

In library science, authority control is a process that organizes bibliographic information, for example in library catalogs by using a single, distinct spelling of a name (heading) or a numeric identifier for each topic. The word authority in authority control derives from the idea that the names of people, places, things, and concepts are authorized, i.e., they are established in one particular form. These one-of-a-kind headings or identifiers are applied consistently throughout catalogs which make use of the respective authority file, and are applied for other methods of organizing data such as linkages and cross references. Each controlled entry is described in an authority record in terms of its scope and usage, and this organization helps the library staff maintain the catalog and make it user-friendly for researchers.

The Library of Congress Control Number (LCCN) is a serially based system of numbering cataloged records in the Library of Congress, in the United States. It is not related to the contents of any book, and should not be confused with Library of Congress Classification (LCC).

Index card

An index card consists of card stock cut to a standard size, used for recording and storing small amounts of discrete data. A collection of such cards either serves as, or aids the creation of, an index for expedited lookup of information. This system was invented by Carl Linnaeus, around 1760.

The Library of Congress Subject Headings (LCSH) comprise a thesaurus of subject headings, maintained by the United States Library of Congress, for use in bibliographic records. LC Subject Headings are an integral part of bibliographic control, which is the function by which libraries collect, organize, and disseminate documents. It was first published in 1898, a year after the publication of Library of Congress Classification (1897). The last print edition was published in 2016. Access to the continuously revised vocabulary is now available via subscription and free services.

Cataloging (library science)

In library and information science, cataloging (US) or cataloguing (UK) is the process of creating metadata representing information resources, such as books, sound recordings, moving images, etc. Cataloging provides information such as creator names, titles, and subject terms that describe resources, typically through the creation of bibliographic records. The records serve as surrogates for the stored information resources. Since the 1970s these metadata are in machine-readable form and are indexed by information retrieval tools, such as bibliographic databases or search engines. While typically the cataloging process results in the production of library catalogs, it also produces other types of discovery tools for documents and collections.

LibraryThing is a social cataloging web application for storing and sharing book catalogs and various types of book metadata. It is used by authors, individuals, libraries, and publishers.

A bibliographic database is a database of bibliographic records, an organized digital collection of references to published literature, including journal and newspaper articles, conference proceedings, reports, government and legal publications, patents, books, etc. In contrast to library catalogue entries, a large proportion of the bibliographic records in bibliographic databases describe articles, conference papers, etc., rather than complete monographs, and they generally contain very rich subject descriptions in the form of keywords, subject classification terms, or abstracts.

Fred Kilgour American librarian

Frederick "Fred" Gridley Kilgour was an American librarian and educator known as the founding director of OCLC, an international computer library network and database. He was its president and executive director from 1967 to 1980.

The Browne Issue System is an old system for loaning library books, developed by Nina Browne in 1895.

Charles Coffin Jewett

Charles Coffin Jewett was an American librarian, in 1848 becoming the Librarian and Assistant Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution before being appointed Superintendent of the Boston Public Library in 1858. He was born in Lebanon, Maine.

Card sorting is a technique in user experience design in which a person tests a group of subject experts or users to generate a dendrogram or folksonomy. It is a useful approach for designing information architecture, workflows, menu structure, or web site navigation paths.


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  30. "Authority Control". Unabridged. 2017.
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Further reading