Several months ago a group of us at Wesleyan University Library spent a lunch hour looking at catalog cards. (The old card catalog was removed several years ago to make room for new flexible study spaces—now only a small catalog case remains in Olin’s Campbell Reference Center for the few older books not yet in the online catalog.) Ever thrifty, we retained many of the catalog cards to use as scrap.
What is so interesting about old catalog cards? Some are funny:
Others remind us of the way we used to do things:
(One of my first jobs as a Williams College Library assistant in 1986-87 was to change cards with updated subject headings. I did this by typing the new heading on a thin label and putting the label over the old heading on the card, then re-filing the cards in the catalog—above the bar of course, so the filing could be reviewed before dropping the cards in their new location.)
And still others are little mysteries: (Where did the stamp came from? See reference cards were not usually illustrated.)
One thing you’ll notice is that these cards are mostly handwritten. From the time that card catalogs came into use in the late 18th century until the age of typewriters in the early 20th century, catalog cards were written by hand. Melvil Dewey used Thomas Edison’s guidelines for efficient handwriting to develop strict rules for ‘library hand’, to maximize legibility and productivity in library cataloging.
In Dewey’s 1898 edition of Simplified Library School Rules, he sets out several rules for library hand, including:
”63b. Form. Follow the library hand forms of all letters, avoiding any ornament, flourish or lines not essential to the letter.
63c. Size. Small letters, taking m as the unit, are one space or 2 millimeters high; i. e. one-third the distance between the rulings of the standard catalog card. Capitals and extended letters are two spaces high above the base line or run one space below; p, t, &, and figures are one and one half spaces high.
63d. Slant. Make letters upright with as little slant as possible, and uniformly the same, preferring a trifle backward rather than forward slant.
63e. Spacing. Separate words by space of one m and sentences by two m’s. Leave uniform space between letters of a word. Each word should be a unit, and form to the eye a distinct word picture.
63f. Shading. Make a uniform black line with no shading. Avoid hair line strokes.
63g. Uniformity. Take great pains to have all writing uniform in size, slant, spacing, blackness of lines and forms of letters.
63h. Special letters. Dot I and cross t accurately to avoid confusion; e. g. Giulio carelessly dotted has been arranged under Guilio in the catalog. Dot I and j one and one half spaces from line. In foreign languages special care is essential. Avoid slanting r and s differently from other letters. They should be a trifle over one space in hight (sic).
Perhaps predictably, Wesleyan librarians broke these rules in a variety of ways. A few catalogers were clearly having a bad day:
But most of the rule-breaking was of the creative variety. In some cases the writer follows the rules, except in the case of a single letter or shape:
In others the writer dares a forbidden slant:
And in still others the writer defiantly shows off their calligraphic skills with alternating thick and thin lines:
Handwritten cards were superseded by printed cards 100 years ago. By the turn of this century the card catalog itself was superseded by the online catalog, which is now making way for the next generation of library systems. Which brings us back to our original question: Why are handwritten catalog cards so interesting? Maybe because they are a tangible link with the person who wrote them—their quirks, talents and moods—in a way that printed cards or online catalog records are not.
One of the challenges of our evolving electronic environment is that this personal link is lost—it can be hard to feel that there is a person behind the digitized object or online service. Social media techniques are helping to bring people together, but librarians and library system vendors have not yet found an effective way to incorporate these techniques into their online catalogs. The rules and structure set by electronic systems, unlike the Dewey’s rules of over a century ago, are difficult to circumvent. But I have faith that circumvent them we will—and that this will lead to systems that are more engaging, effective and ultimately more useful than our current systems.
Catalogers of the world unite! You have nothing to lose but your anonymity …