Remember card catalogs?

Library relics turned art pieces
Painter Vickie Moore uses old library catalog cards as her canvas.
Courtesy of Vickie Moore

Imagine a library filled with thousands of books on every subject imaginable. Shelves full from floor to ceiling: Fiction, nonfiction, auto-mechanic manuals. How do you find the book you need?

You pull out a tiny drawer and page through hundreds of index cards — one for each of the books in the library — until you find the one you want. You jot down a decimal number with a tiny pencil and head off into the stacks.

For anyone born before 1990, that's the way libraries worked. Before computers came on the scene, the card catalog was king. Its orderly drawers held all the answers, one 3-by-5 card at a time.

Card catalogs, of course, are now a thing of the past: The Dewey decimal system went digital and never looked back. The cabinets themselves have become hot commodities at antique stores (for people with lots of tiny possessions, presumably). And all those cards? They've been trashed, recycled or — in the case of some enterprising book lovers — turned into art.

Create a More Connected Minnesota

MPR News is your trusted resource for the news you need. With your support, MPR News brings accessible, courageous journalism and authentic conversation to everyone - free of paywalls and barriers. Your gift makes a difference.

Moore takes inspiration from the cards' titles.
Moore takes inspiration from the cards' titles.
Courtesy of Vickie Moore

Vickie Moore grew up flipping through catalog cards in search of what to read next. Using a computer is certainly more convenient, she admitted, "but it's not the same as browsing through the card catalog, which was a bit like wandering through a bookstore."

By the time she was grown and taking her own children to the library, she realized the cards she'd once flipped through were now being used as scrap paper. "It felt wrong to me that these little pieces of history were being thrown away," she said. She scooped up a handful and took them home.

An artist by training, she was accustomed to working on large canvases, but something about the small cards appealed to her. She took each title as inspiration and began to paint miniature illustrations.

Moore's tiny odes to classic titles found an instant following online. Book lovers from around the world have ordered her painted cards and prints. Holding the long-gone cards brings back a flood of memories for her customers.

"One person who bought a Velveteen Rabbit print told me, 'It took me right back to the first time I read the book,'" she said.

Moore has continued to expand her card collection: She has another 1,000 waiting for her in storage. Each one is a record not just of a book, but of how people felt about that book as they meandered through the catalog. The shabby, well-thumbed corners of "The Black Stallion" card or the one for a book on Babe Ruth show how popular those books were for decades — how many sets of eager hands flipped through the others to find them.

Duimstra re-purposes old library cards.
Stephanie Duimstra re-purposes old library cards into notebooks.
Courtesy of Stephanie Duimstra

Stephanie Duimstra also has fond memories of paging through the old library catalog. "Using a card catalog felt good because it made you work a little bit for it," said Duimstra. "There was the tactile pleasure of sifting through the cards, opening and slamming the drawers, all that good stuff."

Duimstra now crafts notebooks and journals out of the discarded cards. When she displays her work, she hears a lot of "I remember these!" or "Oh, I miss these!" She also hears a lot of parents trying to explain exactly how a card catalog worked to their less-than-interested children. She sees a lot of eye-rolls.

The magic of the cards may be lost on screen-happy youngsters, but for many of her customers, the cards unleash an almost visible wave of nostalgia.

"When someone talks about using a card catalog, their eyes get sort of glazed over. They are transported to this other place," said Duimstra. "I am drawn to items that give us this feeling."