File those cards properly!

Filing Catalog CardsALA Rules for Filing Catalog Cards

Submitter: This book is particularly awful as it was on the regular non-fiction shelf in a high school library.  This wasn’t even on a professional shelf being kept for historic value after the elimination of the card catalog 35 years ago!  It was actually there for student use!  It is also an unbelievably unnecessary tome; any librarian (or anyone with an ounce of common sense) could figure out how to alphabetize the card catalog without this instructional manual.

Holly: What a colossal waste of space.  It is kind of neat as a historical perspective, but unless that is your library’s mission – to keep things for historic value – then it is really useless.  Put it in someone’s office, where it will be found when they retire 30 years from now.  We’ll post it again when you find it there in 2043 (on it’s 101st birthday).

ALA Rules for filing Catalog Cards

ALA Rules for Filing Catalog Cards Appendix V


  1. Ahhh…..the old days. When we had to remember all those rules (or look them up in this book). Kids today just don’t know how much “busy work” there was to running a library. Thank goodness!

    1. Same-

      I see older folks sheepishly approach the desk and ask where the card catalog is. There minds are blown when they realizes the OPAC is kinda like Google.

  2. “It is also an unbelievably unnecessary tome; any librarian (or anyone with an ounce of common sense) could figure out how to alphabetize the card catalog without this instructional manual.”

    Perhaps in a smaller library, but not at Yale University where I started my career. Almost everyone in the Catalog Department, including librarians, had to file two hours each day. The card catalog was huge and incredibly complex. The standard was an inch of cards per hour. I’m surprised that my colleagues didn’t beat me up in the parking lot because my way of making the job palatable was to see how many cards I could file. (I usually did two inches each hour as an overachiever.) Since I filed so well, I got put in charge of dealing with filing problems, such as those that this book would address, a much more interesting task. I can assure any readers of this post that one of the online catalog’s greatest benefits was eliminating this dreadful chore.

    1. Thanks for commenting on this, Bob. At my age, I barely remember the card catalog and my first thought was “ALA really needed to publish this?” But I see your point now with diacritics, punctuation, etc. I’m a Cataloger and I’ll admit those several hours of working Reference a week really does enlighten us as to how actual people search for resources!

  3. When card catalogs first went out, I missed them like crazy because several people could use a card catalog at once, if they were looking in different drawers. But the original online catalogs were limited to 4 computer terminals, 2 of which usually seemed to be out of order at any given time, the other 2 of which were always occupied. As I hung around waiting and waiting for the online catalog terminals to be free, I longed for the old card catalog.

    Nowadays they have increased the number of computers and expanded catalog accessibility to the internet, so they have finally surpassed the card catalog in usefulness. But for a while there, the card catalog was winning. 😉

  4. What I miss is being able to look up an author’s works in the order in which they were published. I really enjoy reading that way. The public libraries I frequent use catalog software that doesn’t permit sorting by publication date, and often the information doesn’t appear on the listing, either. 🙁

    1. That’s too bad! Even with the ability of my library’s opac to sort by publication date, I use Wikipedia as a way to look up that kind of information all the time. It’s great for looking up the order of books in a series. Wikipedia for the win!

      1. “The Internet Speculative Fiction Database” is at but of course it mainly covers science fiction, fantasy, and fairy tales – in its index of Playboy Magazine, for instance. The last Playboy entry, for 2011, only describes an essay by Margaret Atwood about 1930s science fiction magazine covers, which will have fitted right in.

    2. I’m too young to have used the card catalog much, but I have this problem with current catalogs, too. It drives me nuts that a lot of catalog entries I come across list only the most recent date of publication, rather than the original date. I end up on the floor in the stacks looking at a stack of title page versos.

  5. I agree that it’s not necessary on the public nonfiction shelves in a high school. (Actually, I’m surprised it was ever thought necessary there.). But we at the ALA Library regularly get filing rules questions, and our fact sheet on filing rules us heavily used.

    I’m with Bob Holley on the blessing on online catalogs, as I was one of the filers who only did the requisite inch an hour, but people need the rules for such things as filing personnel files, arranging fiction on shelves (or teaching pages how to do it and have justification when there are arguments), or maintain far physical corporate annual report file.

    1. I’ll add what Karen Muller didn’t say. We were filing these cards into the same catalog since we were both librarians in the Catalog Department of Sterling Memorial Library, Yale University during the 1970s, ages and ages ago.

    2. It does seem ludicrous for this book to be in a high school library when it was obviously meant for the professional collection, but I can tell you from personal experience that there are many people who are so adamantly opposed to the idea of disposing of books that they actually think they are being helpful by donating discards to schools, not bothering to think that often books are discarded because the information in them is out of date. I can see this happening with such a book. “But someone will have a use for it!” And see? Someone did! It was added to this blog and gave us all a chuckle.

  6. One of the big conundrums in filing was “does nothing (a blank space) go before something?” Another was the common practice of filing names beginning with Mc or M’ as if they were spelled out “Mac” (the three forms are all from the same Gaelic word meaning “son of” and often interchangeable). It helps if you don’t remember which way the person spelled it (a non-literary example using a name from my family tree: did they spell it “McTavish” or “Mac Tavish”? — and there we have the nothing-before-something question again, too).

    At least whatever decision the computer programmers make for this issue, it’s consistent. But people may still have to guess or even try all the options (“McTavish? MacTavish? Mac Tavish? Mc Tavish?”).

    And then (though this was not technically a filing issue) you had different transliterations for names from languages from other alphabets, using the system the Library of Congress used, which was *very* different from most other ways of transliterating. Tchaikovsky’s name began with a C in that system! So you needed a lot of “see” or “see also” cards!

  7. About Mc & Mac — you’d file MacDonald, Alex / McDonald, Bruce / MacDonald, Charles….through McDavid and MacEwen…and then you’d file “Machine”….and eventually “McRae” followed by “Macramé.”

    But this book was kept on the open shelf in a high school library speaks volumes about inattention to the 000’s.
    Or a severe case of weeding paranoia. (Would any school administrator or board member have a clue?)

    1. When in library school, I worked in the catalog dept. of the library. All non-professional staff were assigned a section of the catalog to file “above the rod” so the pros could follow, revise as needed and “drop” the cards. We had a divided catalog — name/title in one segment and subjects in another. My assignment (as I was a better-than-average filer) was to file, in the name/title section, all cards that began with “United States.” This encompassed 47 drawers. So, yeah, there was a need for rules that instructed on subfiling, and sub-subfiling etc. It was WAY more complicated than A-Z.

      Nothing before something. Mc/Mac/M’ all interfiled as “Mac” — these I remember to this day. Computer filing rules are completely different.

  8. “It is also an unbelievably unnecessary tome; any librarian (or anyone with an ounce of common sense) could figure out how to alphabetize the card catalog without this instructional manual.”

    ROFL as obviously the submitter has never met someone who couldn’t file their way out of a paper bag – trust me they’re out there! My mom worked for the gas company and they kept files in order by address and she can tell some doozies about people who couldn’t figure that out.

  9. I started my cataloging career just after AACR2 was implemented. I had to pull cards from the catalog and correct the entries to AACR2 form in pencil! That actually made straight filing seem not too bad by comparison 🙂

  10. As silly as this sounds, I would actually love to have this book. I have a volunteer who’s working with a card catalog of sheet music, and this book would probably answer some questions that we have. But I do agree that it was silly for it to be living on a high school non-fiction shelf. 🙂

  11. We still have an actual card catalog. Our small collection is included in our larger sister library’s online catalog, but one must limit by location. Too much for our users!
    I would love to have this book!!!

  12. I really love the minimalist mid-century artwork on the front binding. This book is begging to be repurposed! Cheers~cb

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