200 Years. 200 Stories. Story 167: “Card Catalogs and Academy History ”

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four antique card catalog entries
Four entries for the card catalog in the Ewell Sale Stewart Library and Archives. All four entries are for works by Thomas Say, a founder of the Academy. Clockwise from the top left, they are: an 1831 publication by Thomas Say on heteropterus insects, The complete writings of Thomas Say on the conchology of the United States (edited by W. G. Binney), American Entomology, and The complete writings of Thomas Say on the entomology of North America (edited by John L. Le Conte).

Card Catalogs and Academy History

Most library users today assume they will find out what is in a library’s holdings using an online catalog, the latest tool to locate a book or journal. Before computers, card catalogs were in every library, including the Academy’s. Our card catalog holds several “generations” of cards. One requirement of a librarian used to be elegant, legible handwriting, so that the cards were easily read. There are several cards in our card catalog that were likely transcribed by Edward Nolan, the Academy’s first Librarian. When typewriters became available, each catalog card was typed, following specific rules for spacing, capitalization, etc.

In the mid- to late 1950s, the Library of Congress created a program to make catalog cards available to all libraries to encourage cooperation and development of universal practices and to make the work of cataloging books more efficient. In the late 1970s and 1980s, libraries started entering their holdings into OCLC, an organization that started as a state library cooperative and has since grown into the world’s largest bibliographic utility. The Academy Library, as well as thousands of other libraries of all sizes and types, would receive printed cards printed cards with the information included, be it at the national level or specific to the Academy Library.

You can see the card catalog in the Academy Library, and it is still in use by Library and Archives staff. Technology has changed the format of the catalog, but not the reason for its existence.

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