As the Public Library movement gather momentum in the mid to late 19th century, the problem of how to keep track of what books the library possessed and who had borrowed what naturally arose. When collections were very small, the knowledge of the Librarian was what constituted the catalogue. As collections grew, this was no longer practical.
Initially book catalogues were popular; their advantage was portability and ease of use. Initially many were hand-written, later printed catalogues became popular. Their main disadvantage was that they often were out of date as soon as they were published. As collections grew, the book catalogues became larger and more cumbersome.
Card Catalogues were increasing seen as the answer to these problems. The main reason was they could cope with large collections and the ease with which new entries could be added. Searches could also be arranged under author, title and subject. The main disadvantage was that users had to stand at a drawer and leave through hundreds of tightly packed cards. Users also had a tendency to remove cards that they were using. As a result of these disadvantages, Public Libraries continued to produce book catalogues for some time.
While in North America, the main argument was over what kind of catalogue, the library would have, in Britain and Ireland, a very different argument had begun. This revolved around whether the public should have access to the books when selected – ‘open access’ or ‘closed access’ were the Librarian would mediate between the borrower and the books. It was commonly felt that the public would run amok if allowed free access to the books. In addition issues of morality etc. could arise if the public had non-supervised access to books.
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