The SFPL Card Catalogue: A Short History

One of the most prominent features in the Public Knowledge Library is a beautiful card catalogue cabinet, one of a large number of such cabinets that held the original card catalogue of the main branch of the San Francisco Public Library (SFPL) more than a hundred years ago. Today it stands as a reminder of how much the idea of “search” and the practice of information retrieval have changed.

San Francisco’s first publicly owned, freestanding library opened in February 1917 at 200 Larkin Street. The architect, George W. Kelham—responsible for the Palace Hotel and chief architect for the Panama-Pacific Exposition—designed the interior in the spirit of the Italian Renaissance, according to the library’s 1917 annual report, “to best represent the scholarly atmosphere which a Library should attempt to convey.”

The likely manufacturer of the cabinets was Library Bureau, a Boston-based company founded by Melvil Dewey, better known for devising the Dewey Decimal System for classifying books.

Library staff maintained the catalogue until 1989, when digital records began to replace the card system. After that, staff made all new catalogue entries into the online database, at first accessible only at the library. SFPL established Internet access and an early website in 1994.

When the main library moved to its new location at 100 Larkin Street in 1995, the card catalogue was relocated to Brooks Hall, beneath the library, but remained available for patron use. Those who were curious (or who didn’t want to use the new digital system) could make requests at the San Francisco History Center to have drawers pulled from the catalogue and brought up to the sixth floor of the new building.

Today, in the context of the Public Knowledge Library, this century-old piece of furniture is a welcome opportunity for nostalgia among older visitors, who remember having to use this kind of card system whenever they needed to find a book or do research. It is also an object of curiosity for younger visitors, who have never used anything other than an online digital database to find a book, or a search engine to find information.

According to a survey conducted around the time of the main branch move, SFPL was the last major urban library to retain a card catalogue, and there was local disagreement about what should happen to it. Arguments centered on clarifying the mission of the library. The city librarian at the time was interested in selling it. Activists wanted it to remain in the new building on view to the public. Ultimately, it went into storage beneath the library, where it remains, except for the piece currently on view at SFMOMA.

The concerns that arose when the card catalogue was retired from use still resonate today: Should a public library be a place for research and preserving the past for posterity, or should it be about leveling access, through investing in new technologies? Does a public library have to choose between those identities? And what role should corporations that provide technological services play in public institutions? These remain important questions, in San Francisco and elsewhere, that have not yet been resolved.

Thanks to staff at the San Francisco History Center, in particular Susan Goldstein and Thomas Carey, for providing information about the card catalogue and supporting its loan to SFMOMA. To learn more about the history of the SFPL, visit the history center, or see the timeline.