852: Rare – Harvard, It’s in the Cards

Until the eighteenth century, when French revolutionaries took inventory of French libraries on the backs of confiscated playing cards, library catalogs were merely lists written or printed in books. But as book production dramatically increased, libraries looked for a more expandable way to organize their holdings. The Harvard Library’s answer to this problem, the card catalog, became the standard way to access library materials throughout the world for more than a century.


In 1840, Harvard College Librarian Thaddeus William Harris proposed a catalog of “every work in the library” to be organized on slips of paper to better help the staff keep track of the holdings. This was the first mention of a card catalog in the United States. Created in 1848, Harris’s slips measured 9” x 1 ½” and was in use by the staff until 1912.

In 1862, Harvard Librarian John Langdon Sibley created a public catalog using cards that measured 2” x 5”, stored in a cabinet that his assistant, Ezra Abbott, designed. Title, Author, and subject cards were created for each book; in the first year, 35,762 cards were hand written by young women who were paid 6 cents an hour.

The card catalog caught on, and many libraries around the country adopted its use. In 1877, the American Library Association voted to standardize catalog cards in 2 sizes: “Harvard College” size, or 2” x 5”, and “postal size,” the now-common 3” x 5” card.


In this 1881 edition of Charles A. Fyffe’s A History of Modern Europe, the publisher included pre-printed author, title, and subject text, along with instructions on carefully removing the sheet and “past[ing] on Catalogue Cards.” The text is sized to fit either Harvard College size or postal size cards.

In 1881, Melvil Dewey’s company Library Bureau began selling furniture for libraries, including cabinets of drawers meant to house catalog cards. And although typewriters became available in this same decade, most catalog cards continued to be hand written for several decades, even after the Library of Congress began selling pre-printed cards in 1901.


In 1902, the Law School Library started its first card catalog. Eighty years later, Harvard’s catalogs were moved online, with the introduction of the HOLLIS catalog, and no new cards were created. Today, the College Library’s massive public card catalog stretches around the perimeter of the 3rd floor of Widener Library, where it still enjoys limited use. The Law School’s card catalog was removed in the mid-nineties, in anticipation of Langdell Hall’s renovation.

Post contributed by:
Matthew Reidsma
Curatorial Assistant

Scroll to Top