Brain Pickings

Vintage Catalog Cards for Literary Classics from the Semi-Secret Archive of the Library of Congress

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An affectionate reminder that a book is a node in a complex human network of authors, readers, and librarians, connecting time, space, and sensibility.

When Melville Dewey devised his revolutionary decimal system in the late 19th century, he imposed order on the chaos of the library by creating a taxonomy of book placement. Suddenly, librarians were no longer needed — at least not as literal book-retrievers, which had been their task for centuries. Instead, they found a new role as intellectual guides who helped patrons decide what to read and scholars find the books best suited for their research. One thing that didn’t change, however, was the mechanism by which librarians performed their magic — the holy catalog card.

That magic springs to life anew in Card Catalog: 30 Notecards from the Library of Congress (public library) — a delicious collection of vintage cards, both handwritten and manually typeset, from the little-known trove of the Library of Congress. At once bittersweet mementos of a bygone era and timeless testaments to the staying power of literature’s greatest works, the cards — neatly stacked in a box with tabbed dividers — catalog such beloved authors as Virginia Woolf (who had particularly strong opinions about how one should read a book), Ernest Hemingway (who famously believed that “writing, at its best, is a lonely life” but would’ve had to concede that reading is the life of company), Aldous Huxley (though not indexing his little-known, only children’s book), and James Joyce (who would’ve been delighted to add this card to his list of personal legends). More than mere ephemera of literary fetishism, however, the cards are a reminder that a book is a node in a complex human network of authors, readers, and librarians, connecting countless eras, geographies, and sensibilities by the inextricable common thread that is the joy of reading.

Most of the cards are purely descriptive, yet somehow lovingly so:

Some, however, are downright poetic: The one on Emerson’s Self-Reliance — the timeless treatise that shaped the ideal in America, greatly influenced Thoreau’s famous case for the simple life, and permeated Tolstoy’s Calendar of Wisdom — cites the title page of a 1902 edition:

So this then is the essay on Self-reliance by Ralph Waldo Emerson, wherein is told how, although we can never be independent, yet through the mental habit of self-reliance is the highest physical, mental and spiritual attainment secured: and as all individual life is a manifestation of self-reliance, a cheerful and noble self-reliance is the best service we can render our Maker, and. . . .

Others are subtly ironic in the context of history’s hindsight. Salinger, for instance, may have found the “DO NOT DISCARD” stamp a particular affront to is efforts to engineer the myth of his own disappearance as he spent the last half-century of his life crafting the public image of an author who simply wanted to be left alone.

Mostly, however, the cards remind us that however the written word may morph in medium and however many sensationalistic death tolls we may hear — for the novel, for handwriting, for the public intellectual — the spirit of literature will endure. Along with it, our impulse to organize beloved books — much like our impulse to order the cosmos and map time — will remain an immutable part of the human story.

Complement Card Catalog: 30 Notecards from the Library of Congress with the unquiet history of libraries and famous writers’ collected wisdom on literature.

Images courtesy of Chronicle Books

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