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The Library of Congress Card Catalog

Catalogs before the Card Catalog

Library of Congress. Catalogue of books, maps, and charts, belonging to the library of the two Houses of Congress: April, 1802. Washington City: Printed by William Duane, [1802]. Library of Congress Rare Book and Special Collections Division.

Before the implementation of the Library's card catalog in 1900, the Library published a number of print catalogs describing the books and other materials in its collections. As noted by John Cole in his 1996 article "Publishing at the Library of Congress: A Brief History" (Publishing Research Quarterly 12, pp. 38-49):

Five major catalogs (1830, 1840, 1849, 1861, 1864) and 31 catalog supplements or chapter reprints were published by the Library between 1815 and 1864. Each was a substantial volume, ranging in length from 258 pages in 1830 to 1,398 pages in 1861, and each was arranged according to Jefferson's system. The 1,236-page 1864 catalog, prepared by Assistant Librarian Ainsworth Rand Spofford, was the first Library of Congress catalog to be arranged by author.

In 1869 the Library published a subject catalog documenting its collections. This subject catalog was the last complete catalog of note published in the 19th century, as efforts were redirected towards getting Congress to approve funding for a separate Library building after the Library ran out of shelf space in the U.S. Capitol—its original home—in 1875.

The following chronology describes some of the most significant booklists, catalogs, and other guides to the Library's collections issued before 1898. Links to digitized versions of the catalogs are provided where possible. A complete list of 19th century Library of Congress catalogs through 1875 can be found on pages 23-27 External of American Library Book Catalogues, 1801-1875: A National Bibliography External (Champaign, Ill.: Graduate School of Library and Information Science, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 1996). The Library of Congress's 1901 Annual Report External lists, on pages 361-364 External, all catalogs published from 1802-1900.


The Library's first booklist, describing 152 titles (in 740 volumes) and three maps, is published. The list is a copy of the invoice and cover letter sent to the Library by London bookseller Cadell & Davies in 1800 along with the Library's first books. The resulting pamphlet is the first Library of Congress publication. The original 1800 invoice and cover letter are held by the Library’s Rare Book and Special Collections Division.


Publication of the first Library of Congress catalog, Catalogue of Books, Maps, and Charts Belonging to the Library of the Two Houses of Congress.


The Library’s first classified catalog is published. It includes 3,076 volumes and 53 maps, charts, and plans divided into 18 classes. The classification was derived from the system used in the 1789 catalog of the Library Company of Philadelphia External, which was based on the systems External developed by Francis Bacon and Jean-Baptiste le Rond d'Alembert. A 1982 reprint edition is available online External.


On August 24, 1814, the Library's collections were destroyed when the British burned the U.S. Capitol, the Library's original home. Early in 1815 Congress agreed to purchase Thomas Jefferson's personal library of 6,487 volumes to reconstitute the Library's collections. When the Library published a new catalog of its collections in 1815, the catalog followed the main "Chapter" order devised by Jefferson, but the entries under each chapter were rearranged in alphabetical order. Jefferson's original order, indicated in a handwritten catalog he prepared around 1812, was recreated in 1823 by Nicholas Trist. Trist's 1823 Catalogue can be viewed on the Library's website.




The Library's final classified catalog is published.


The first general Library catalog is published by the Government Printing Office. This is an alphabetical catalog rather than a classified catalog. The decision to switch to an alphabetical catalog was made by Librarian of Congress Ainsworth Rand Spofford, who distrusted classification.


Publication of the only alphabetical subject catalog ever issued by the Library. This is a two-volume catalog.


The first two volumes of an updated author catalog were published from 1878-1880, covering entries from A-Cragin. This catalog was never completed as Library's management was forced to focus its attention on the space crisis facing the Library and arguing for funding to construct a separate building for the Library of Congress.


During 1898 the Library began creating a dictionary catalog, with alphabetically arranged and interfiled author, title and subject entries, to its collections. These catalog entries, for the first time, were issued on cards. On October 21, 1901, the Library announced a new service to print and distribute these cards to other libraries. The era of the card catalog had begun.