Academic journal article Library Resources & Technical Services

"Wholly Visionary": The American Library Association, the Library of Congress, and the Card Distribution Program

Academic journal article Library Resources & Technical Services

"Wholly Visionary": The American Library Association, the Library of Congress, and the Card Distribution Program

Article excerpt

This paper offers a historical review of the events and institutional influences in the nineteenth century that led to the development of the Library of Congress (LC) card distribution program as the American version of a national bibliography at the beginning of the twentieth century. It includes a discussion of the standardizing effect the card distribution program had on the cataloging rules and practices of American libraries. It concludes with the author's thoughts about how this history might be placed in the context of the present reexamination of the LC's role as primary cataloging agency for the nation's libraries.


On October 28, 1901, the Library of Congress (LC) began to distribute its cataloging to the libraries of the United States in the form of cards. Herbert Putnam, in his 1901 Annual Report of the Librarian of Congress, called the card distribution program "the most significant of our undertakings of this first year of the new century." (1) By 1909 these cards were being prepared according to international standard cataloging rules agreed upon by the American Library Association (ALA) and the British Library Association. (2) Once these rules were adopted by other libraries, a cooperative approach to the national bibliography became possible. In this new cooperative approach, cataloging done at many different libraries could be distributed through the LC cards and made part of the national bibliographic structure. This ingenious scheme, by which a shared cataloging program to lower cataloging costs produced the equivalent of a national bibliography at the same time, has become the envy of the rest of the world. This approach is now very much taken for granted in the United States, but it could not have happened without the conjunction of a number of economic, political, and social factors at the turn of the century, without the intervention of several visionary men (among them Melvil Dewey, Herbert Putnam, and J. C. M. Hanson), without the actions of the ALA and the LC as institutions, and without the inaction of the publishing industry. This paper explores how this conjunction of factors came about, and then speculates about implications for the current environment of shared cataloging and the role of the LC therein.

A Visionary Plan

The idea had been in the air for half a century or more. The LC's Annual Report for 1902 includes a "Bibliography of cooperative cataloguing ... (1850-1902)," which cites articles on this subject from all over the world. In 1852, Charles C. Jewett proposed his famous stereotyping plan, by which the Smithsonian would collect cataloging from U.S. libraries and store it in the form of stereotyped plates, which would be made accessible to any requesting library. The plan failed for technical reasons, and because Joseph Henry, Secretary of the Smithsonian and Jewett's boss, did not agree that this would be part of the proper function of the Smithsonian. (3)

In 1876, the ALA was founded. According to Putnam, a "main purpose" in its founding was "a centralization of cataloguing work, with a corresponding centralization of bibliographic apparatus." (4) At the first meeting of the ALA in 1876, Melvil Dewey, instrumental in the ALAs founding, proposed that "the preparation of printed titles for the common use of libraries" be discussed, stating, "There somehow seems to be an idea among certain leaders of our craft that such a thing is wholly visionary, at least, their failure to take any practical steps in the matter would seem to indicate such a belief. Now, I believe, after giving this question considerable attention, that it is perfectly practicable." (5)

Over the next twenty-five years, the ALA tried a number of different ways to put this "visionary" scheme into effect. Attempts to induce publishers to furnish cataloging for their new books failed to gain the support of librarians and publishers for a number of reasons detailed by Scott and Ranz. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.