Cards from the Library Catalogs – Want some?

One of the results of projects to bring our Libraries and Archives into the digital world is that we have boxes of cards—mostly typewritten or computer generated—available for the taking and ready to be transformed into a second life.  Since the Library Staff has developed an Online Catalog and systematically checked information on the physical catalog cards with the data now residing in the electronic catalog, we invite you to contact us if you wish to visit and take some of the cards and report back to show us what you created with them.

Artist project with catalog cards

Keith DuQuette, Library Preservation Associate here, has created some wonderful “bookshelves” from the cards which are sold for the benefit of the Library.

The cards have an interesting history and were previously housed in sturdy, many drawered cabinets that were so long such a familiar part of the library landscape. The Catalogs were started somewhere around 1904 and were closed in 1994 and during that time held thousands of cards created over the course of many decades. Susan Hutchinson, the Museum’s Founding Librarian, reported in the Brooklyn Museum Annual Report for 1904 that there were 20,567 cards in the Library Catalog.  She also noted that there were 3,116 cards added and 3,677 cards revised for that year which was a massive undertaking since all the cards were handwritten at that time.

Over the years the card catalogs expanded as did research collections in both the Art Reference Library and the Wilbour Library of Egyptology. The cards reveal how the research collections grew and closely paralleled the building of the Museum’s object collections. Indeed there is an intellectual link between the Museum Library and the art collections since the Library very often reveals who made the objects, when, where and how.

The cards also reflect the current technology available at the time of their creation. Handwritten cards were created by the Library Staff until a typewriter became available; the typewriter was invented in 1873, but we do not have a fixed date for when one first began to be used by the Brooklyn Museum Library staff to generate cards for the catalogs. Despite this many of the cards continued to be annotated by hand since signs and symbols such as hieroglyphs could not be replicated on a typewriter. The Brooklyn Museum Library staff began to use Library of Congress printed cards in the 1940s. These cards were often enhanced with hand or type written annotations providing additional information specific to the item being cataloged such as edition size or other important details.

In 1984 the Brooklyn Museum became a special member of the Research Libraries Group and records representing the Library collections began to be entered into the Research Libraries Information Network, an international bibliographic database. Since then a massive effort has taken place to enter online records for the entire research collection to facilitate greater knowledge of all that could be found in the Libraries and Archives.  The Library Online Catalog was launched on the Internet in 2002.

If you visit the museum during hours when the Libraries and Archives are open (Wednesday through Friday from 11 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.), we are celebrating the history of these cards with a small display mounted on the Library Reading Room wall.  On view are fascinating pieces of taxonomic history—ranging from handwritten to typewritten to computer generated cards—reflecting the growth of the Brooklyn Museum Library collections.