Before we had online circulation systems, barcodes on books, and automated due date reminders, libraries used paper-based systems for everyday tasks. This required book cards, book pockets, charging trays, and the “ca-chunk” sound of a library date stamp.
The Trade Literature Collection at the National Museum of American History Library holds a variety of Library Bureau catalogs. These trade catalogs illustrate everything from large pieces of furniture, such as card catalogs and shelving, to smaller supplies, like book cards and date stamps. One of these is titled Library Supplies, Catalog no. L 1018 (1918) by Library Bureau.
Just like today, early 20th century libraries recognized the importance of an accurate and quick method for tracking borrowed materials. As this trade catalog states on page 17, “The system should be so simple in operation that the business at the charging desk may be transacted rapidly, in order to avoid undue detention of borrowers and the accumulation of crowds during the busy hours of the day.”
Library staff often multi-task. Among other duties, they handle questions, concerns, and needs of several library users while also discharging and charging books. The Browne System, which is described on the page below, appears to take that into account. It includes a suggestion for temporarily checking-out a book so the library user does not have to wait while the full process is completed.
So how did the Browne System work? It required that every book had a book card. The book card included bibliographic information, such as title, author, and call number. This information was typically noted at the top of the card, as shown in the illustration below. Depending on the style, book cards were available in six colors, including white, buff, blue, salmon, fawn, or green.
The book card was inserted into a book pocket which was pasted inside the back cover of the book. As illustrated below, book pockets came in a variety of designs and sizes. If desired, a library could choose to have their rules and regulations printed on the book pocket. This provided a convenient way to remind borrowers of their responsibilities and share rules of the library, such as limits on number of borrowed books, renewals, and overdue fines.
In addition, some libraries might have pasted a separate date slip inside the book for stamping due dates. Some date slips included information about overdue fines. The date slip, shown below (bottom left), includes space for the title, author, and call number followed by boxes for stamping due dates. According to the catalog, this date slip should be pasted to the “right-hand edge of the last fly leaf of the book, opposite the back cover.”
When a library user wished to check-out a book, library staff removed the book card from its book pocket and placed it inside the borrower’s pocket. Examples of borrower’s pockets with spaces for borrower’s number, name, and address are shown below. The borrower’s pocket held book cards of all books, arranged numerically by call number, currently checked out to that user. The due date for the book was stamped on either the book pocket or the separate date slip inside the book to remind the user when it was due.
The borrower’s pocket was placed in a charging tray behind a date guide corresponding to the due date of the book(s). The library had the option of also stamping the due date on the book card, but that was not necessary if the borrower’s pocket was placed behind the correct date guide. Various styles of guides for charging systems are illustrated below, including numerical guides for tracking due dates and alphabetical guides for filing unused borrower’s pockets.
When a book was returned, library staff referred to the due date stamped on the book pocket or date slip of the book. They retrieved the borrower’s pocket from behind that date in the charging tray. Next, the book card was removed from the borrower’s pocket and inserted into the book pocket of the returned book. At this point, the book was checked-in and ready to re-shelve. The borrower’s pocket was filed in alphabetical order in a tray to make it available the next time the user wished to borrow a book.
But what if a user returned a book and immediately wanted to check-out another book? The returned book might not have been checked-in yet. Being mindful of the user’s time, staff had an option to temporarily check-out a book.
The Browne System suggested removing the book card from the book pocket of the book the patron wanted to check-out and placing it inside the returned book. This provided a temporary check-out. Later, as time allowed, the check-in process of the returned book was completed by removing the book card from the borrower’s pocket and placing it in the pocket of the returned book.
To complete the check-out of the other book, the book card was removed from the returned book, inserted into the borrower’s pocket, and filed in the charging tray behind the correct due date. This way, the user did not have to wait while the full process was completed.
All of these supplies and many more were manufactured at the factories of Library Bureau in Ilion, NY, Cambridge, MA, and Chicago, IL. At the time this catalog was printed, those factories were devoted to steel working, woodworking, and a combination of card and woodworking. This provided a way for libraries to order standard equipment and supplies.
Library Supplies, Catalog no. L 1018 (1918) by Library Bureau is located in the Trade Literature Collection at the National Museum of American History Library. Interested in more library equipment and charging systems? Take a look at a past post highlighting more library equipment and a system from 1899 that might have been used during epidemics.
Thank you for sharing this! Great memories of the book cards. My library went to scanners while I was working there. Cards were not used as much.