The Collation

Research and Exploration at the Folger

The Folger G.K. Hall Catalogs, or How to fit an entire card catalog on your bookshelf

I had the good fortune of learning to do scholarly research during the transition from card catalogs to Online Public Access Catalogs or ‘OPAC’s, as they are known in libraries. I have a particular fondness for card catalogs1 because they allow for precision and recall when searching. Keyword searches can retrieve an interesting scattershot set of results, but when someone stands in front of a card catalog and looks for a particular name, title, or subject, they can see exactly how many cards are in the catalog with the search term.2 This not only allows for seeing what is there, but it allows for seeing what is not there. So, card catalogs made it easier to find only those things that matched the search term (precision) and all of those things that matched the search term (recall).

Card catalog room at the Folger Shakespeare Library

Additionally, when I have dealt with one too many technology problems on a given day, I daydream about using a manual typewriter to make cards. Or even possibly using “library hand”—a particular form of handwriting that was used for writing cards.3

Catalog card showing problematic horizontal alignment of the uppercase G and L, which point to the use of a manual typewriter.

Enough of my daydreams, however. One of the biggest benefits of online catalogs is that they can be searched from anywhere, and they don’t take up physical space in the library. Additionally, they are available to anyone with an internet connection. I can find out what is in another library through their online catalog without ever stepping foot in their building. So one may wonder: what did researchers do before the internet? Did they always have to do an in-person visit to use the card catalog in a library? How would someone know that they needed to go to a particular library in order to look at the card catalog, without already knowing what was in its collections?

Enter the G.K. Hall catalogs. G.K. Hall & Co., now an imprint of Gale, initially started in the 1950s by publishing print and microform editions of library card catalogs. Rather than re-type cards for this purpose, they would go to libraries and photograph the cards. In the print version of their catalogs, these were reproduced in a reduced size, so that twenty-one cards could fit on a single page. The result was a multi-volume set representing the card catalog at the Folger, which was then sold to other libraries. This allowed, for example, the University of Michigan to have a complete copy of the card catalog for books at the Folger so that researchers from the University of Michigan could peruse the Folger’s catalog cards—with a magnifying glass, no doubt—while still in the University of Michigan library.4 By seeing a card from the Folger, a researcher could determine if a visit to the Folger was warranted or if it might help to request a microfilm reproduction of something in the Folger collections. (Before we had digital libraries like https://luna.folger.edu, we filled reproduction requests with photographs and microfilm.)

The G.K. Hall catalogs were not only useful to researchers at other libraries; they were also helpful to people at the Folger, including staff. Heather Wolfe said that the manuscript catalogs were useful when she first started as Curator of Manuscripts because they enabled her to get to know the collection. This was especially helpful since she needed to prepare for the exhibition The Pen’s Excellencie, which she curated shortly after she arrived.5 Additionally, the manuscript cards were entered into the online catalog after printed books, so the G.K. Hall manuscript volumes were still useful even as we transitioned to an online catalog. They also made browsing the cards so much easier and more efficient. There’s something to be said for being able to sit at a desk with a large reference work and take notes as you flip through it.

Erin Blake enjoyed the convenience of having a set of the catalogs outside her office. She still uses the G.K. Hall catalogs to solve bibliographic mysteries as a Senior Cataloger. For instance, a curator at the National Gallery once inquired about a vague citation to “Folger XXVII p. 222” in a bookseller’s bibliographic description, which turned out to be a reference to a G.K. Hall catalog page that included the card for the book in question: Johann Weichard Valvasor, Theatrum mortis humanae tripartitum, 1682.

G.K. Hall reproduction of catalog card for Johann Weichard Valvasor’s Theatrum mortis humanae tripartitum, 1682.

Over time, we’ve gotten most cards into our online catalog, including the recent addition of 24,000 “preliminary” catalog records. However, the G.K. Hall catalogs are still useful for us today even though they are no longer current. After the initial set of catalogs was published, they were kept current through the publication of periodic supplements. That practice trailed off over time, so there is a gap between the publication of the last G.K. Hall catalogs and supplements and the Folger’s transition to an online catalog. That means they provide a primitive sort of “version control.” Libraries update catalog entries over time, and this was done in the card catalog era as well. The G.K. Hall catalogs allow us to have a snapshot of the cards at an earlier time, before later edits, replacements, or conversion to electronic records.

Erin Blake recently used the G.K. Hall catalogs for just that reason. By looking at a card in v.16 of the G.K. Hall Catalog of printed books…, she was able to determine that a bill of mortality (STC 16743.8) needed to be re-inserted into manuscript V.a.316. The later version of this card, and the online record that was derived from it, lacks the part of the call number that says “Bd. in Ms. V.a.316.” But in the card below, we can see the earlier version of the card that still includes the call number notation that indicates that STC 16743.8 was formerly bound in V.a.316.6 7

Catalog card showing a London Plague bill from 1609 with call number “STC 16743.8 Bd. in Ms. V.a.316”

While working from home during the pandemic, Erin wanted to consult the G.K. Hall catalogs for manuscripts. That’s when we discovered that most of them had been digitized by HathiTrust, but they were only available to researchers at the University of Michigan because they were still under copyright. Much to our delight, Gale has generously agreed to make the catalogs available to all under a Creative Commons CC BY 4.0 license so now we, and you, can use them from the comfort of our own homes. You can get to them through the records in Hamnet:

Once we can access our collections again, we’ll look into options for digitizing the remaining volumes, which Gale has also agreed to make available under the CC BY 4.0 license.

We want to thank the University of Michigan, HathiTrust, and Gale for enabling us to share this resource with everyone. For a certain kind of user—I’m raising my hand over here—it’s heartening to see all the cards and think about all the labor and scholarship that went into their creation.

  1. See also Abbie Weinberg’s post on this topic: https://collation.folger.edu/2016/04/defense-card-catalog/
  2. For an outstanding analysis of some of the problems inherent in keyword searching, see Jeffrey Beall, “The Weakness of Full-Text Searching”, Journal of Academic Librarianship 34, issue 5, September 2008: 438-444. A post-print of the article is available here: http://digital.auraria.edu/IR00000037/00001
  3. For some examples, see https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/library-hand-penmanship-handwriting. Mrs. Folger wrote the initial catalog cards for the library, although she did not use “library hand” penmanship.
  4. Researchers could also peruse union catalogs, such as the The National Union Catalog Pre-1956 Imprints. Union catalogs would have an entry for a book followed be a series of abbreviations to indicate which libraries had copies of that book. This is was useful, to be sure, but union catalogs did not include the same level of detail that an individual institution might include on their own catalog card for a book. For that reason, institution-specific catalogs, like the G.K. Hall catalogs, were more detailed than the union catalogs.
  5. See also the exhibition catalogue, “The pen’s excellencie”: treasures from the manuscript collection of the Folger Shakespeare Library, compiled and edited by Heather Wolfe and published to coincide with the exhibition in 2002.
  6. If you’re wondering how on earth these items were separated, the bill of mortality was removed and displayed in an exhibition, but apparently was not reunited with the manuscript afterwards. Later, when someone was cataloging for the ESTC project, they found the bill of mortality on the shelf by itself and removed the part of the call number that indicated it was “bound in manuscript V.a.316.” That was technically correct, since it was not bound in that manuscript at the time it was being re-cataloged. Recently a reader inquired whether these items belonged together. By looking at the older card represented in the G.K. Hall catalog, Erin was able to figure out that they had initially been bound together. We expect to return them to their original state of being bound together. In the meantime, Erin has updated the catalog records to indicate the relationship between V.a.316 and STC 16743.8.
  7. As an aside, this is why “data narratives” and “data artifacts” can be such interesting fields of research. I first learned about this from Yanni Loukassis in his presentation on “Data Artifacts at the Arnold Arboretum” at the Thinking with Your Eyes Symposium at Harvard in 2014. He showed versions of the arboretum’s classification of trees over time. He implored the audience not to discard older metadata as they managed it through the years. Erin’s comparison of a current catalog record with the version in a G.K. Hall catalog is a great example of the value of older metadata for individual records, but Loukassis showed we can glean a lot from entire sets of metadata. Read more about the symposium in this post from the Harvard Art Museums: “Seeing Our Collections as Data”.

4 Comments


    • The public card catalog is adjacent to the reading room, and people still use it. Libraries typically have (or had) two card catalogs – the public one and the official catalog of record that is only accessible by staff. That means we not only have the public one, but also a second one that is maintained in a different location. We consider the card catalog to be one of our most precious resources even though it is not up-to-date, and have no plans to remove them. In fact, if I had my druthers – where ‘druthers’ = lots of money and space – I would love to bring the card catalog up to date and start promoting the idea of ‘slow research’.

  • I appreciate all the work that goes into the card catalogs! How generous to have an additional way to find Folger items now – thank you! Here at home, I have a card catalog of my own art reference books, manuals and treatises and often chastise myself at the time I take to write down just the title and author. I leave out most other details, and my own handwriting (in place of library hand) is not always as neat as it could be! Reading this article makes me doubly grateful for the care that librarians take worldwide to help readers of all sorts, find what they are looking for and also to provide happy unintentional finds as well!

  • The catalog of manuscripts is such a goldmine! Thank you so much for the link.

    One error, though. The introduction to volume one mischaracterizes Delia Bacon as “one of the first advocates of the theory that Francis Bacon was the chief author of Shakespeare’s plays.”

    It would be more accurate to say instead that she anticipated the recent New Oxford Shakespeare, which finds that Shakespeare had some dozen co-authors. That was precisely Delia Bacon’s theory–that there was a group of collaborating authors.

    She was ahead of her time.


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