How did Library Cards Work?
May 23, 2008 10:17 PM   Subscribe

How did paper-based library circulation work before computers? I remember that the librarian stamped the book and the book's card with the due date (by hand), and then kept the card. What did they do with the card? How did they associate the book with my account? Was there a separate ledger where they kept the association? Or did they write my name/number on the card itself?
posted by Jeff Howard to Technology (12 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
I worked in the school library occasionally during the late '70s/early '80s. Our books had a pocketed card and a separate glued-in slip for stamping the due date. When someone checked out a book they'd sign the card, then we'd stamp the due date onto both the card and the due date slip on the book, and then file the card by due date. When the book came back in, we'd check the due date slip in the book and pull the card from the corresponding date. Eventually each due date would bubble to the top of the file; each day we'd go through the cards and compile a list of who had late books out. (It was a small enough school that the signature was enough to track people down.) I think we posted a "who has late books" list for folks who were only one or two weeks late, and would track them down after that.

At the time, the public library had a similar system but also had some kind of imaging equipment that would take a picture of your library card and the inside front cover of the book. I'm not sure how they kept/tracked their records internally, but if you had late books you'd get a copy of the photo sometimes.

Editorial comment: Yeah, card catalogs were harder to maintain than computer-based records, but a lot of the electronic search systems only gave you search results for exact hits -- in a card catalog, you had all the cards for a title/author/subject area right at your fingertips, so you were always making serendipitous discoveries.
posted by Lazlo at 10:56 PM on May 23, 2008 [1 favorite]

At the time, the public library had a similar system but also had some kind of imaging equipment that would take a picture of your library card and the inside front cover of the book.

The library where I grew up had this too. It made a sound like "loomp-DURNK."
posted by kindall at 11:10 PM on May 23, 2008 [1 favorite]

Thanks Lazlo. I had blanked out the card-signing bit, but I suppose that's how my high school library worked. I was discounting that possibilty because it would have created a public record of who had checked out what books, but I guess that wasn't a problem.
posted by Jeff Howard at 11:17 PM on May 23, 2008

There is no power of browsing that is missing when compared to the old days.

My grouse was past-tense -- the first system to replace the card catalogs at my local branch didn't support browsing, unfortunately. For a book geek like me, it was soul-destroyingly awful.


Definitely the same equipment!
posted by Lazlo at 11:40 PM on May 23, 2008

The library card I had as a kid had a little metal thing on it with a serial number. When I checked out books, they put my card in a machine and stuck the checkout cards from each one in the machine, which printed my serial number on the checkout cards. As mentioned, those they then filed.
posted by Class Goat at 12:39 AM on May 24, 2008

When I was a kid, my local library had the overhead photographing thing, too. I think it made images on microfiche. The card catalog was on microfiche, too. I still remember the smell of the hot air that came out of the overhead box, and I remember missing it when they converted to the oh so modern bar code wand with black and green bar code stickers.
posted by flabdablet at 2:48 AM on May 24, 2008

In the UK, we had a bunch of library tickets, which were little cardboard folders. That is, two layers of card partly closed, so that another piece of card could be tucked securely inside them.

Each book had its own card-stub, tucked into a kind of pocket on the inner front page where the books were stamped.

When you borrowed a book, the librarian would take your library ticket, stamp both the front of the book and the card-stub from the book. Then they would tuck the book's card-stub into your ticket, and put them in a wooden tray built for the purpose.

At the end of the working day, these would all be filed away. I'm not sure how they filed it though. They must have had some means of filing by date so they could identify overdue books. But they also had to find the card-stub when you returned the book, though maybe they could do that just by comparing the return-date stamped into the book.

As a child, I once managed to cause havoc by reading all three books I was allowed on the day I borrowed, and trying to return them on the same day, before the tickets had been filed away. I was told very firmly by huge, stern and fierce librarians of the Old Days never to do that again.
posted by TheophileEscargot at 5:24 AM on May 24, 2008 [1 favorite]

Oh hi -- the libraries I work in RIGHT NOW do this. And they all do it in a slightly different way. The basic routine though is that when you go to check out a book, you write your name on the card in the back of the book which is then date-stamped and given to the librarian who also date stamp the piece of paper in the back of your book that stays there. The card with your name then goes into a box which is ordered by date so that two or three weeks form the date you check out a book, they have a list of everything that is due that day and they can give you a call and let you know your book is due.

Obviously this has privacy ramifications (some libraries use your patron number instead of your name) and is labor intensive. But in a small community without very many books and no overdue fees, it's easier to make a few phone calls than pay in the five figures every year for software that will do some of these basic things.
posted by jessamyn at 5:42 AM on May 24, 2008 [2 favorites]

Yes, the moral of the story, which is probably hard for kids of the digital age even to imagine, is that those of us who worked in libraries in the pre-microcomputer, pre-barcode olden days did a heck of a lot of filing, indexing, sorting, and shuffling of pieces of paper.
posted by aught at 6:53 AM on May 24, 2008

Seconding Class Goat and the library card that they used to stamp the book slip. I remember my little library card with this folded over piece of metal on it with the numbers stamped in it. The metal piece was inserted and folded into two slits in the card. If you bent the card the right way, the metal piece would slide out. Here's what they looked like.
posted by cabingirl at 8:39 AM on May 24, 2008

This is not actually an answer to your question, but I once checked some 50s pop best sellers out of my local city public library. These books had not been checked out since they were hot. The system seems to have been to write the patron's name and address in pencil in the back of the book. The librarians on duty were unable to say if or how the library kept a record of the book being out.
posted by Lesser Shrew at 9:48 AM on May 24, 2008

I miss the write-your-name checkout cards. It's great to see when a book was checked out previously. It 's great to go back to a book you read many, many years before and see your name written in that hilarious way you used to do.

Pet peeve: electronic catalogs that won't look up by (Dewey) number.
posted by neuron at 1:27 PM on May 24, 2008 [1 favorite]

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