The intricacies of a paper library system | Smithsonian Voices


Before having online circulation systems, barcodes on books, and automated due date reminders, libraries relied on paper-based systems for day-to-day tasks. This required book cards, book sleeves, load trays, and the “ca-chunk” sound of a library date stamp.

the Commercial Literature Collection to National Museum of American History Library holds a variety of catalogs from the Library Office. These trade catalogs illustrate everything from large pieces of furniture, such as card catalogs and bookshelves, to smaller supplies, such as book cards and date stamps. One of them is titled Library supplies, Catalog no. L 1018 (1918) by library office.

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Library Office, Cambridge, MA. Library supplies, Catalog no. L 1018 (1918), title page.

Smithsonian Libraries and Archives

Just like today, early 20th century libraries recognized the importance of an accurate and fast method of tracking borrowed materials. As this trade catalog indicates on page 17, “The system should be so simple to use that business at the charging desk can be processed quickly, to avoid undue borrower detention and crowd build-up during peak business hours. daytime.”

Library staff are often multitasking. Among other duties, they deal with the questions, concerns and needs of several library users while unloading and invoicing books. The Browne system, which is described on the page below, seems to take this into account. It includes a suggestion to temporarily borrow a book so that the library user does not have to wait while the entire process is completed.

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Library Office, Cambridge, MA. Library supplies, Catalog no. L 1018 (1918), page 19, explanation of the “Plan of use” for the Browne system and the simplified LB charging system.

Smithsonian Libraries and Archives

So how did the Browne system work? Each book had to have a book card. The book card included bibliographic information, such as title, author, and call number. This information was usually 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.

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Library Office, Cambridge, MA. Library supplies, Catalog no. L 1018 (1918), page 23, book or refill cards.

Smithsonian Libraries and Archives

The book card was inserted into a book pocket which was glued inside the back cover of the book. As shown below, book sleeves come in a variety of designs and sizes. If desired, a library may choose to have its rules and regulations printed on the book sleeve. This provided a convenient way to remind borrowers of their responsibilities and to share library rules, such as limits on the number of books borrowed, renewals, and overdue fines.

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Library Office, Cambridge, MA. Library supplies, Catalog no. L 1018 (1918), page 24, book or card sleeves.

Smithsonian Libraries and Archives

Additionally, some libraries may have pasted a separate date slip inside the book to stamp due dates. Some date records included information on overdue fines. The date slip, shown below (bottom left), includes space for title, author, and call number followed by boxes for stamping due dates. According to the catalog, this date slip must be glued to the “straight edge of the last flyleaf of the book, opposite the back cover.

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Library Office, Cambridge, MA. Library supplies, Catalog no. L 1018 (1918), page 22, date sheets.

Smithsonian Libraries and Archives

When a library patron wanted to borrow a book, library staff would remove the book card from its sleeve and place it in the borrower’s pocket. Examples of borrower pockets with spaces for the borrower’s number, name and address are shown below. The borrower’s pocket contained cards of all the books, numerically listed by call number, currently borrowed for that user. The book’s due date was stamped either on the book sleeve or on the separate date slip inside the book to remind the user of the due date.

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Library Office, Cambridge, MA. Library supplies, Catalog no. L 1018 (1918), page 25, pockets for books or cards that can be used as borrower’s pockets.

Smithsonian Libraries and Archives

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 stamping the due date on the book card as well, but this was not necessary if the borrower’s pocket was placed behind the correct date guide. Different styles of guides for pricing systems are shown below, including numeric guides for tracking due dates and alphabetical guides for filing unused borrower pockets.

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Library Office, Cambridge, MA. Library supplies, Catalog no. L 1018 (1918), page 27, guides to charging systems.

Smithsonian Libraries and Archives

When a book was returned, library staff referred to the due date stamped on the book’s sleeve or on the book’s date slip. They retrieved the borrower’s pocket behind that date from the loading tray. Then the book card was removed from the borrower’s pocket and inserted into the pocket of the returned book. At this point, the book has been checked in and ready to be re-shelf. The borrower’s pocket was alphabetized in a bin to make it available the next time the user wanted to borrow a book.

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Library Office, Cambridge, MA. Library supplies, Catalog no. L 1018 (1918), page 26, loading trays and sorting trays with numerical and alphabetical guides.

Smithsonian Libraries and Archives

But what if a user returns a book and immediately wants to borrow another? The returned book may not have been registered yet. Mindful of the user’s time, staff had the option of temporarily borrowing a book.

The Browne system suggested removing the book card from the sleeve of the book the customer wanted to borrow and placing it inside the returned book. This provided a temporary check-out. Later, when time permitted, the process of checking in 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 verification of the other book, the book card was removed from the returned book, inserted into the borrower’s pocket, and filed in the loading tray after the correct due date. This way, the user did not have to wait for the entire process to complete.

All of these supplies and more were manufactured at Library Bureau factories in Ilion, NY, Cambridge, MA and Chicago, IL. At the time this catalog was printed, these factories were engaged in steel working, woodworking, and a combination of card and woodworking. This allowed libraries to order standard equipment and supplies.

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Library Office, Cambridge, MA. Library supplies, Catalog no. L 1018 (1918), unnumbered page [2]Principal factories of the Library Bureau.

Smithsonian Libraries and Archives

Library supplies, Catalog no. L 1018 (1918) by library office is located in the Commercial Literature Collection to National Museum of American History Library. Interested in more library equipment and charging systems? Take a look at one past message highlighting more library equipment and an 1899 system that could have been used during epidemics.

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