How the French Revolution Inadvertently Helped Create The Card Catalog

A Revolutionary Tool

Some big news in my life is that I’ve started library school. I’m pursuing a master’s in library science with a concentration in archives management. Classes just started on February 1st, so I’m one week into this new endeavor.

I’m taking three courses this semester: Information Organization, Information Sources and Services, and Introduction to Archival Theory and Practice. I thought it might be fun to document my educational journey by sharing an interesting bit of information each week.

As a history buff, I enjoyed reading a chapter in one of the textbooks* titled, “Development of the Organization of Recorded Information in Western Civilization.” The chapter starts out in Greek Antiquity, where the first book lists were recorded on Sumerian clay tablets, circa 2000 BC. It was with the Greeks that the primacy of the author was established in the Western Tradition. In the East, the title of a work is primary.

Leaving Antiquity, the chapter marches on to the Middle Ages where book lists became inventories of monastery holdings. Then on to the European Renaissance where shelflists, catalogs, and cross-references were developed to better organize information.

Gutenberg’s printing press changed everything in 1455. Suddenly, so many books were being produced that “bibliographic control” was needed. By the 17th century, catalogs were being used as finding aids (the location of an item would be noted next to its bibliographic entry on a piece of paper or in a ledger). Lists became more than inventories.

Finally, we get to what I want to share with you today. During the French Revolution, “the card” of the card catalog was developed. Do you know what these first cards were made from?

Playing cards! How cool is that?

Playing cards at the time didn’t have designs on the back so they were handy to jot notes on. They were available around the country and their consistent size made them easy to organize and to travel with. Initially, however, these cards were not used as finding aids for citizens to flip through at a library.

The newly formed government confiscated libraries around the country and wanted them inventoried so the books could be sold for revenue. That plan didn’t work out, but the card of card catalog fame was born. It would eventually revolutionize the organization of information and support the growth of libraries.

If you’re interested in learning more about the mighty card catalog, check out The Card Catalog: Books, Cards, and Literary Treasures from the Library of Congress with a foreword by Carla Hayden.

*The textbook mentioned above is The Organization of Information, 4th edition, by Daniel N. Joudrey (my professor!) and Arlene G. Taylor, with the assistance of Katherine M. Wisser

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  1. I’m so old that I remember, when I started working as a librarian, that we had a card catalog 🙂

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