Help:How to parse data in library catalogs

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Libraries have used catalogs about as long as there have been libraries. It was with the printing press that libraries accumulated enough books that the catalog became necessary to find books of interest. The 17th century saw the beginning of systematic organization for libraries.

Types of Cataloging

Library cataloging makes a distinction is between descriptive cataloging and subject cataloging, each applying a set of standards, different qualifications and often also different kinds of professionals. Descriptive cataloging has been defined as "the part of cataloging concerned with describing the physical details of a book, such as the form and choice of entries and the title page transcription." Subject cataloging may take the form of classification or (subject) indexing. Classification involves the assignment of a given document to a class in a classification system (such as Dewey Decimal Classification or the Library of Congress Subject Headings). Indexing is the assignment of characterizing labels to the documents represented in a record.

In the tradition of documentation and information science (e.g., by commercial bibliographical databases) the concept document representation (also as verb: document representing) have mostly been used to cover both "descriptive" and "subject" representation.

Classification typically uses a controlled vocabulary, while indexing may use a controlled vocabulary, free terms, or both. Although ISFDB is concerned with descriptive elements, the standards described below encompass both types, as well as related areas such as the controlled vocabularies (e.g. Authority, Countries, Geographic Areas and Languages).

Some History of Cataloging

Cataloging was in the domain of individual libraries (mostly private, then clerical, then university) from antiquity until just after the French Revolution. The National Constituent Assembly seized church assets, including libraries. These were to form the foundation of a system of public libraries. Basic instructions were issued in 1791 for local officials to assist in cataloging. Adherence to the rules was mixed, but the format - cards, using the back of playing cards - was carried forward.

In the United States, when Congress was preparing to move to Washington, D.C., the Library of Congress was established to support both houses of Congress. The initial catalog was an eight-page pamphlet. The library was destroyed in 1814, and in 1815 Congress purchased the private library of former-president Thomas Jefferson. This introduced several new categories, such as literature and poetry, but beyond these categories, his cataloging approach was rejected. For example, his approach to Geography involved chronological and directional aspects. New bound catalogs were produced every ten years.

In the 1860's, Harvard introduced another card catalog, but with a different objective. This was designed to be used by the patrons. Soon after, the Boston Athenaeum's approach insisted that the information must include the author, title and subject. This was adopted by many libraries. In 1876, about one hundred librarians met and established the American Library Association (ALA). Their most pressing issues were the lack of a standardized catalog and and agency to administer a centralized catalog. 2-by-5-in and 3-by-5-in cards were established as a standard. The Library of Congress was approached, but declined. In 1851, fired destroyed more than half of the Library's books. At the end of the civil war, the Library of Congress took on a new role, acting as a national library and acquiring the books from the Smithsonian Institution Library. Their role was cemented by the Copyright Act of 1870 requiring two copies of material submitted for copyright to be sent to the Library of Congress. The rapid influx of books and other material soon overwhelmed the existing space and a new building was required. This opened in 1897, but the only usable catalog was author based and subject catalog of Jefferson was out of date. A decision was made in 1899 to re-catalog the entire library using 7-by-12-cm cards and a new system of subject headings. By 1900, cards were being printed on linotype machines. The librarians were also receiving calls from university and public libraries to share copies nationwide. In 1901 a circular was mailed offering such cards for sale.

The new Cataloging Distribution Service was self-supporting by 1905. By the 1920's it was overwhelmed, mostly due to space. Some drawbacks of card catalogs were becoming apparent, not just the physical bulk, awkwardness of use and cost of filing, but issues with misfiled or missing cards and worn or illegible cards. Hollerith punch cards had been in use since 1880's, but even in 1940, the library felt the necessary equipment to handle massive catalog was available. The arrival of vacuum tubes and magnetic tapes led to the Committee on Mechanized Information Retrieval in 1958. Machine-Readable Cataloging (MARC) launched in 1966. The last new cards were filed December 31, 1980. In the 1980's, a private firm converted the Library's cards to the new electronic format by hand, keyed in manually rather than scanned, and because of human error, a good deal of information failed to make it into the new system.

Cataloging Standards

The first standard was by Anthony Panizzi. His 91 rules were approved by the British Museum in 1839, and published in 1841 as Rules for compiling the catalogues in the Department of Printed Books in the British Museum. The British Museum rules were revised up until 1936. The library departments of the British Museum became part of the new British Library in 1973.

Charles Coffin Jewett used stereotype plates to produce the Smithsonian library's catalog in book form and proposed the sharing of cataloging among libraries. His rules were published as Smithsonian Catalog System in 1853. Later, as director of the Boston Public Library in 1858; during this time the Index to the Catalogue of a Portion of the Public Library of the City of Boston Arranged in its Lower Hall was published. It provides a unified index for author, subject and title. His systems became a model for other libraries as he pushed for alphabetical card catalogs.

The published American and Anglo-American cataloging rules in the 20th and 21st centuries were:

Internationally, the main standards are:

  • Paris Principles (PP) also known as the Statement of Principles from October 1961.
  • The (Statement of) International Cataloguing Principles (ICP), was first published in 2009.

The integration RDA with the ICP and its adoption have been ongoing.

From Wikipedia and Librarianship Studies & Information Technology - 2022-012-09

[Need to add an explanation of the MARC family of standards, SUTRS and the OCLC guidelines here].

Library of Congress

For materials cataloged for the general and area studies collections (primarily textual materials), LC catalogers currently use Resource Description and Access (RDA) for original cataloging, although the Anglo-American Cataloging Rules may still be used for processing copy cataloging. Cataloging for the Library’s special collections may represent several different standards. The publications listed below are also used by LC catalogers for descriptive cataloging:

  • LC-PCC Policy Statements
  • Descriptive Cataloging Manual
  • CONSER Editing Guide
  • CONSER Cataloging Manual
  • Descriptive Cataloging of Rare Materials (Books)
  • Describing Archives: a Contents Standard (DACS)


Library catalogs do not always state whether the cataloged publication is a hardcover, a mass market paperback or a trade paperback. However, they usually record the physical size of the publication, which can be used as follows: "18cm" is the size of the standard US/Canadian mass market paperback. "19cm" is usually a small tp/hc or occasionally an oversizzed pb. 20+ is either a tp or a hc, but distinguishing between tps and hcs can be tricky. Sometimes OCLC will print "(pbk.)" next to the ISBN, which is self-explanatory, but if they don't, then it's time to check other sources. Price is not always a reliable indicator, but it can help. If the book was published pre-WWII, it's usually either a hardback or, in some cases, a pamphlet since paperbacks didn't take off until WWII -- first in the UK, then in the US. There were some cheap editions in the early part of the 20th century whose binding sometimes approached the current paperback binding, but few have survived and fewer are owned by libraries. If the catalog information is ambiguous, then leave the binding field blank and record the volume size in the Notes field.