The Changing Face of Library Catalogues

card catalogue

Catalogues serve as the foundation of the library – it makes everything easily accessible. But have you ever thought about how far cataloguing has come, especially in the last 40 years?

Clay tablets and papyrus scrolls

Catalogues can be traced back to the libraries of antiquity. Information recorded on clay tablets,1 served as basic location devices. In the 7th century B.C., author and title lists posted on walls in important Mesopotamian libraries help readers search.

When the Roman Empire fell, the private, public and temple libraries were dispersed. For the next 10 centuries, monasteries managed the growth of libraries in the Western World. This meant there was little need for library catalogues. Resembling an inventory list, catalogues didn’t change much during this time.1

Printed books

As libraries moved out of the monasteries the information stored in catalogues began to change. This shifted the focus of the catalogue from inventory to searching. Different cataloguing techniques were tried during this period,1 but book was the predominant medium used.

Card catalogues

Introduced in 1743,1 the card catalogue was common by the late 1800s. At this time cards were handwritten. In his 1898 card catalogue handbook Melvil Dewey (yes, that Dewey) notes that legibility for the reader, above speed for the cataloguer, should be the main concern.2

Cards, in one form or another, remained the predominant medium for mainstream catalogues for the next seventy years. During this time, cards changed from handwritten to printed, to punch cards in some libraries. In the mid-1970s when microform (microfilm and microfiche) became a widespread medium for catalogues.1

Online Public Access Catalogue

In the late 1980s the online catalogues, experimental in previous decades, were growing in popularity. They were becoming more sophisticated with searching mechanisms and the ability to place items on hold.3 But these were still accessed through a dedicated terminal or green screen computer.

With Amazon,4 Google5 and NASA6 moving to cloud computing in early 2000, it was only a matter of time before catalogues made their way there too. Catalogues in the cloud allow you to access all your resources, anywhere at any time. They also provide immediate upgrades, off-site security, and cost efficiencies. Plus, as Joe Matthews notes, catalogue software in the cloud means the staff member who was responsible for the maintenance of the system can now perform other tasks.8

How amazing to think that in the span of less than a lifetime we’ve gone from searching through hundreds, or even thousands, of cards to find what we were looking for to finding what we want with a few keystrokes. With this rate of change, it will surely only be a few short years before we’re using the next best thing and looking back at on-site online catalogues as the cards of this millennium.

  1. Kumar, S. (2013). From clay tablets to web: Journey of library catalogue. DESIDOC Journal of Library & Information Technology, 33(1).
  2. Mason, M. Historical Development of Library Catalogues: Their Purpose and Organization.
  3. Dewey, M. (1898). Simplified Library School Rules. Google Books.
  4. Husain, R & Ansari, M A. (2006). From Card Catalogue to Web OPACs. DESIDOC Bulletin of Information Technology, 26(2).
  5. Amazon. (2006). Announcing Amazon Elastic Compute Cloud (Amazon EC2) – beta.
  6. Google. (2008). Introducing Google App Engine + our new blog.
  7. Rochwerger, B, et all. (2009). The Reservoir model and architecture for open federated cloud computing. IBM Journal of Research and Development, 53(4).
  8. Matthews, J. (2017). A nostalgic look back at library hi tech(nology). Library Hi Tech, 35(1), 92-98.