Friday, June 1, 2018

The Card Catalog: Books, Cards, and Literary Treasures by The Library of Congress

A brief illustrated history of bibliographic metadata
The book entitled The Card Catalog, published in 2017, is an illustrated history of the Library of Congress’s old-school database of the same name. The authorship of the book is credited to The Library of Congress in general, though it does include a brief introduction by the current Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden. I purchased the ebook edition of this title when it came up as a Kindle deal, so that’s what I’m reviewing here. The book is probably more successful as a print volume, however, because even on a large screen the Kindle app doesn’t display the photos very large and doesn’t allow zooming.

I am a recent library school graduate with a particular interest in cataloging and classification, so I’m about as close to the intended audience for this book as you can get, though it does make an attempt to appeal to a broader readership of general book lovers. This book succinctly explains, in terms accessible to the lay reader, the continuous struggle to make an ever-expanding inventory of library materials findable and accessible. It is essentially a historical overview of the development of pre-digital metadata used to catalog library collections, beginning with ancient and medieval libraries and then progressing to the modern American library. Along the way, the reader also gains a lot of insight into the broader history of the Library of Congress—its origins, its transformation from a legislators’ reference library to a national public treasure, and its initiation as the bestower of copyright in America. After developing its own card catalog, the Library of Congress instituted its Cataloging Distribution Service, which sent copies of its cards to libraries all across the country, thereby influencing the development of library operations nationwide.

The entire book can be read in about two hours, so it is by no means a comprehensive, authoritative overview on its subject, yet it provides much more information than one would expect from a coffee-table illustrated volume. For those interested in this topic, it gives enough detailed information to make you want to do further research on some of these fascinating people and projects. Towards the end the text touches on the creation of MARC records and computerized catalogs, but that’s pretty much where the narrative ends. The book doesn’t go into detail about the Library of Congress’s digital methods of cataloging because the book is primarily a nostalgic love letter to the physical, many-drawered oak cabinets full of 3 x 5 inch index cards.

This fondness for the tactile card catalog many of us grew up with is evident in the illustrations as well. The book features many historical photos of The Library of Congress—its building, its directors, and its operations. The majority of the illustrations, however, consist of cover images and title pages of classic books coupled with their corresponding cards plucked from the Library’s actual cabinets. Some are handwritten, some typed; some contain annotations and corrections. As a book lover, I could look at pictures of old books all day, and this book contains a lot of beautiful images, but the pictures of the cards really didn’t interest or surprise me much. The overall card catalog system is a monumental achievement, but I didn’t feel the fondness for each individual card that the compilers of this book hoped I would.

Any librarian will definitely enjoy this book. For the general book lover, it’s hard to say, as the text is more about book cataloging than the books themselves. Though the ebook version is a great bargain, the printed volume no doubt provides a far superior reading and viewing experience.
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