File This Under Nostalgia: New Book Pays Tribute To The Library Card Catalog Today, people use the antique wooden cabinets to store their knick-knacks. But these card catalogs once held the keys to a world of information. A new Library of Congress book explores their history.

File This Under Nostalgia: New Book Pays Tribute To The Library Card Catalog

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David, you and I are old enough to remember card catalogs at the library, right?


Three words - Dewey Decimal System.

MARTIN: Did you go to the library in college?

GREENE: Of course I went to the library...


GREENE: ...And spent time in (unintelligible) catalogs.

MARTIN: Anyway, so those old card catalogs are basically furniture - right? - big wooden cabinets with tiny drawers. These things are retro chic now, people use them for all kinds of things - sewing supplies, snacks, shoes. Those tiny drawers are the analog equivalent to Google. There's a new book about the history of the card catalog from the Library of Congress which gave NPR's Andrew Limbong, a great excuse to check out the archives.

ANDREW LIMBONG, BYLINE: In a basement beneath the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., there's a wall that's lined with those wooden drawers containing index cards.

PETER DEVERAUX: There's tens of millions of cards here. This is a city block-long.

LIMBONG: That's Peter Deveraux who wrote the new book titled "The Card Catalog," and I'm also here with Carla Hayden. He's the librarian of Congress.

CARLA HAYDEN: OK. So let's explore.

LIMBONG: Highlights from the library's collection include Whitman comma Walt, "Leaves Of Grass," Clemens, Samuel Langhorne, also known as Mark Twain, "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," Margaret Mitchell, James Baldwin, William Faulkner, that Shakespeare guy and on and on and on - some handwritten, some typed with various cross-out marks and notes scribbled on the side.

Cataloguing has been around for as long as we humans had stuff to keep track of. Information isn't much good if you don't know where to find it. There is Sumerian catalogs of clay. The great catalog in the Library of Alexandria and ancient Egypt and then in the 14 and 1500s after Gutenberg invented the printing press, readers were freaking out. There was all this information coming out so rapidly. How could people keep track of it? Maybe you can relate to the feeling. Jump ahead a few hundred years after the French Revolution when the card catalogue as we know it was created.

HAYDEN: The card catalog was a way of managing this increase in material and what we have today is what people are calling a firehose of information and being able to catalogue or contain and make sense of all of this information is what the card catalogue represents.

LIMBONG: Now, today, the card catalog is nostalgia. It really has been since the 1980s when card catalog started fading.

HAYDEN: As I travel around as a librarian, I have people of certain generations that remember fondly fingering the cards and the discovery of that and pulling out the drawers. It's like a cabinet of curiosities.

LIMBONG: Hayden pulls out a card for her favorite childhood book, "Bright April" by Marguerite De Angeli about a Girl Scout Brownie.

HAYDEN: And it was the first book that I saw that featured a young African-American Brownie, and I loved it.

LIMBONG: The card points Hayden to related books.

HAYDEN: If I was looking in the catalog at that time, I said what else did she write? And I would go and "The Door In A Wall" - oh, what's that about? And it tells you about the books, and this card - "The Door In A Wall" - says incidental music composed by Herb Davidson. I think oh, music, And I keep going. And then there's Ealon's "America" - oh, "A Quaker Girl" (ph) and "Gerald's Island." And that's - was the discovery in the process.

LIMBONG: Human brains want to make connections whether it's fingering through a card catalog or now scrolling down the screen of search results. The Library of Congress is working with universities and tech companies to create the next form of the card catalogue. It probably won't be little screens that fit inside tiny drawers. Andrew Limbong, NPR News.

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