The Last Card Catalog in the Library

June 6, 2024 By Alice Berry, Alice Berry,

On the fourth floor of the University of Virginia’s Shannon Library lies an inconspicuous cabinet containing an invaluable, but old-fashioned, resource: a card catalog.

The card catalog – the librarians say it’s more accurately described as an index – has information about issues of the Cavalier Daily and UVA Alumni News dating back to the late 19th century and going through the early 1990s, with information on everything from a Louis Armstrong concert to curriculum changes to integration at the University. 

It’s one of the last card catalogs in use in the UVA Library system, which includes Shannon, Clemons Library and the Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library, among others. 

Online card catalogs emerged in 1980, according to the Library of Congress, and the advantages were clear. The little index card containing the entry for, say, “Jane Eyre” by Charlotte Brontë could easily fall under a shelf and get lost. Not so for an online catalog, whose users can peruse a library’s collection from anywhere, at any time.

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While historic copies of the Cavalier Daily and the Alumni News are readily available Shannon’s Reference Room, searching through them for specific individuals, events or moments in University history can be tedious, as they aren’t digitally searchable. That’s where the card index comes in. Each card in the case lists articles on a person or topic; researchers can easily walk to the volumes and have the articles in their hands in moments. 

The old-fashioned index, hand-written by their predecessors over decades, carries meaning for the current librarians who use it weekly.

“It really makes you feel connected to the work of our field across time,” reference librarian Mandy Rizki said.

Before the internet, it was the job of librarians to go through and catalog every item in the library’s collection, noting the work’s title, author, date and subject. They would write these entries by hand and organize them in alphabetical order for researchers, students and other library patrons to use.

A card from the drawer pulled out for display
There are thousands of indexes related to the Cavalier Daily and Alumni News index, written by different librarians throughout the decades. (Photo by Emily Faith Morgan, University Communications)

“Thinking about the information, pre-internet, that was created by hand, on paper. There’s a lot of nostalgia there,” Rizki said.

Because the entries were made by hand by different people (all of whom had different, sometimes difficult-to-decipher handwriting), the information on some cards is incomplete. But sometimes the lack of detail is informative in itself.

The 1940s, for example, have more sparse coverage than other decades. As men enlisted to fight in World War II, they weren’t around to report for the Cavalier Daily or staff the library.

“It’s a little bit spotty, just because they had other priorities during that time. We have documentation saying that the library was very understaffed during that time, so we had to change a lot of services,”  Trillian Hosticka, a reference librarian in Shannon, said.

Side by side portraits of Mandy Rizki, right, and Trillian Hosticka, left

Mandy Rizki, left, and Trillian Hosticka, right, use the indexes weekly in their work as reference librarians. (Contributed photos)

The University even had to change its academic calendar – a fact that Hosticka, , discovered when she responded to a request from an alumnus’s relative.

“We had someone who had found a relative’s transcript from the ’40s and none of the dates made sense for the current academic schedule. None of the numbers made sense based on our current course numbering system,” Hosticka said.

It was something of a mystery as she parsed through materials described in the card catalog. Then she dove into the University Record.

“They changed what the academic schedule was halfway through his courses here because he was attending in the ’40s,” Hosticka said. “At some point, they decided they just needed to get young men through faster so they could become officers and go to war.”

While the card catalog has allowed librarians to learn about Louis Armstrong’s multiple performances at UVA and read about the revelry of Easters in the 1970s, perhaps the most meaningful work it enables is connecting people with family members.

“Sometimes, they come and this is maybe the only photo they have of their relative,” Hosticka said. “Now, that’s something that we take for granted.”

Media Contact

Alice Berry

University News Associate Office of University Communications