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What Is Library Hand?

By J.E. Holloway
Updated May 23, 2024
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Library hand is a style of handwriting, now largely obsolete, which librarians learned in order to complete card catalog entries. Library hand was rounded, open and easily readable. It reached its highest level of use in the late 19th century, but fell into decline in the early 20th century. Today, this form of penmanship exists only in a few antique card catalogs.

The earliest library information systems consisted of card catalogs. These took the form of cabinets made up of a number of long, thin drawers, each of which contained small cards holding bibliographic information. The earliest use of this type of system was in France in the late 18th century. In the absence of mechanical typewriters, librarians filled out cards by hand; printing was not cost-effective or fast enough. This use gave rise to the term "index card," which remains in use today even though cards are seldom used in indices.

Catalog cards were the product of many different librarians working over long periods. In order to make card searching easier for library users, some form of standardization was required. Library schools began to teach a standardized form of handwriting, traditionally credited to library scientist Melvil Dewey and inventor Thomas Edison, which became known as "library hand." Although it was impossible to completely eradicate individual variation among librarians, card catalogs became increasingly uniform. The 1903 Handbook of the New York State Library School contained a complete description of library hand, even down to the correct pens, ink and posture to use.

By this time, however, library hand was already beginning to fall out of favor. Mechanical typewriters could standardize text in a way that no handwriting scheme could. As typewriters increased in availability in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, library hand became less and less necessary. By the middle of the 20th century, almost all card catalogs were typewritten and library hand was effectively extinct. Beginning in the late 20th century, card catalogs themselves began to be replaced by computerized records.

Library hand represented an attempt to solve the challenge of standardizing records in the pre-typewriter age. Today, handwritten catalog cards and the standardized hand that went with them are a relic of a bygone era, of interest only to collectors or to those interested in the history of library science. Nonetheless, the simple elegance of the penmanship that attracts collectors and historians to this short-lived form of calligraphy.

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