Cover "Typing data on cards" - published by the Nebraska Library Commission in their posting Union Catalog", used here with permission.

Union Cataloging Projects (W.P.A. Technical Series, Library No. 1; Washington D.C., 1940)


This booklet explains how to make a regional union catalog, based on the experience of the Nebraska state project at the end of the 1930s.1 It is not a work of Robert C. Binkley’s but it reflects the methods of the Cleveland Regional Union Catalog which he sponsored. It is worth reading for its sense of a phase in library history similar to our own, when new technologies and social change forced librarians to renovate their inheritance. A survey published in 1942 found 52 national and regional union catalogues, at least 41 of which had been founded in 1932 or later.2 W.W. Bishop wrote in 1936:

[W]hen I think of the administrative problems involved in combining into a workable whole millions of entries from hundreds of libraries, I bow humbly before the coming union-catalog experts. I go back to the days when the first step in a cataloger’s training was learning to write (or print) a library hand. I saw the typewriter slowly replace hand copying, and then the unit card replace the multiple cards for each book. Then came printing, and then the Library of Congress card. Now photography seems to be coming in to replace or supplement print. But I have never seen the intelligent cataloger displaced, nor have I ever seen an oversupply of intelligent catalogers. Union catalogs are here; they will increase and multiply. But they will always be based on the work of the trained cataloger, now grown to an administrator.3

US Union Catalog Projects Started, 1925-1940
US Union Catalog Projects Started, 1925-1940

The first of the New Deal union catalogs was proposed in Philadelphia in 1933. The original plan involved reproducing catalog cards by photostat, but in November 1934 the organizers obtained a copy of a report on microfilm by Binkley’s Joint Committee on Materials for Research.4 This enabled efficient copying of catalog cards in bulk in their home libraries; the films could then be brought to a central point where new cards could be produced. The physical affordances of microfilm were discovered and exploited: for example, cards that needed special attention were marked by punching a notch in the edge of the film, which could be located by holding the film lightly between thumb and forefinger while scrolling.5 The Philadelphia union catalog project began to operate in 1935, coinciding with the establishment of the Works Progress Administration. The labor-intensive manual typing of cards from film fitted the WPA’s priority on projects that employed large numbers of the unemployed. Binkley defended it in a letter to Bishop:

As to the technique that is to be employed, it is to my mind exactly comparable with the use of pick and shovel men instead of steam shovels in road making. It has nothing to recommend it except the fact that the main purpose of the federal government now is to give people work rather then relief, and that this is the only way in which any money at all can be found in Cleveland for a union list.6

Philadelphia was followed by many others. At a two-day conference on union catalogs at the Library of Congress in April 1936, Binkley described the newly-started Cleveland catalog (of academic libraries plus Cleveland Public) under Marion Wilson, and pointed out the potential for WPA funding for such projects, if only local people would organize them.7 The technology caught the public imagination: the Cleveland Plain Dealer wrote about it under the title “2,000,000 Books Flicker in Film: Camera and Movie ‘Magic’ Helps WPA to List 33 Libraries”.8

It is clear from the included examples that this guide was written in Nebraska’s project, which started in 1938. It was initiated under the direction of Eleanor Campion, who came over from the Philadelphia catalog. She was state supervisor of WPA library projects in Pennsylvania and later director of the Philadelphia Bibliographic Center: one of “the coming union-catalog experts” hailed by Bishop.9 She wrote to Binkley about union catalogs on Nebraska WPA letterhead in December 1938, and mentioned that the WPA had asked her “to write a practical manual of procedure.”10 She is therefore almost certainly the author of this guide.

Like many others the Cleveland Regional Union Catalog continued in operation into the 1960s and later. Rivalry between Cleveland and Columbus (which was the home of the Ohio Union Catalog, made up mostly of public libraries) helped to justify the establishment of OCLC, to eliminate the duplication of effort. In the early 1970s Cleveland’s catalog received cards printed by OCLC, and by 1976 its card file was “a historic document,” replaced in service by an OCLC terminal.11

  1. The typescript original has been scanned by Hathi Trust.

  2. Arthur Benedict Berthold, “Directory of Union Catalogs in the United States,” in Union Catalogs in the United States, ed. Robert Bingham Downs (Chicago: American Library Association, 1942), 345–91. I’ve excluded the 65 exchange catalogs and Library of Congress depository catalogs. Of the 52 national and regional catalogs, four lack start dates in Berthold’s survey (and are therefore not included in the graph).

  3. William Warner Bishop, “Union Catalogs,” The Library Quarterly 7, no. 1 (January 1, 1937), p. 49.

  4. Paul Vanderbilt, “Report on an Experimental Section of the Proposed Union Library Catalogue of the Philadelphia Metropolitan Area,” Revue de la documentation (I.I.D Communicationes) 3, no. 1 (January 1936), Va.3.

  5. Chapter III.

  6. Binkley to W.W. Bishop, 7 Nov. 1935, Box 25, Joint Committee for Materials on Research Records, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.

  7. Report of the Informal Conference on Union Catalogs: Library of Congress, April 17th and 18th, 1936 (Chicago: American Library Association, 1936), p. 27.

  8. “2,000,000 Books Flicker in Film,” Cleveland Plain Dealer, February 21, 1937.

  9. New Union Catalog Lists over 1,250,000 Volumes,” The Nebraska State Journal, February 25, 1940, p. 27.

  10. Eleanor Este Campion to Robert C. Binkley, 19 Dec. 1938, Box 23, Joint Committee for Materials on Research Records, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.

  11. Lewis C. Branscomb and A. Robert Rogers, “The Conception and Birth Pangs of OCLC–An Account of the Struggles of the Formative Years,” College and Research Libraries 42, no. 4 (July 1981): 303–7; Frederick G. Kilgour et al., “The Shared Cataloging System of the Ohio College Library Center,” Information Technology and Libraries 12, no. 1 (March 1, 1993), p. 114; Dulce DiDio McLean et al., Ohio Academic Library Innovation: A Directory, Tower Series No. 3, April 1977, pp. 13-14.