An addendum on added entries

Why are card catalogs fun and confusing? And when will I stop making mistakes?

My last letter you to all concluded with an image from a card catalog:

And then I continued on my merry way, distracted by annoying impositions and their corrections. But my former Folger colleague Erin Blake emailed to point out that I’d looked at the added entry card and not the main entry card, which records more information about the book, including a physical description, a subject description, an acquisition number (lower left corner), and the initials of the original cataloger (lower right).

What?? Added entry cards? Card catalogs? What century even is this???

I know, it’s easy to make jokes about card catalogs being obsolete and everything is online and blah blah blah you know those things are not true. Card catalogs are an amazing technology and the information that they provide are—especially for older collections—are still valuable for us today, in this, the tail end of the second decade of the second millennium of the common era.

A proper paean to card catalogs might come another time, but today I just want to point out the value of knowing the difference between main entries and added entries, and the constraints of writing on cards.

Imagine there’s a book written by Sarah Werner and titled My Life in Errata and published in Washington, DC in 2020. The main entry for this book would be found under the author, “Werner, Sarah,” and so you’d put that at the top of your index card, followed by the title and imprint information and maybe subject headings (memoir, mistakes) and possibly a description of how long the book is (all the years of my life) and whether it has illustrations (naturally).

Perfect. But what if you want to allow people to use your catalog to, say, browse by subject headings? You would need to create another card that you’d then file under the relevant heading. That, my friends, is an added entry—an entry that has been added to the main entry in order to help users find what they’re looking for. Sometimes they’re useful for redirecting users to the correct path or to suggest similar topics that might be helpful. But the general gist the same: there is a main entry and there are added entries that create additional pathways to find the work.

Now remember that we’re using cards here, writing or typing them out by hand. Are you going to provide all that information about the book in the added entry? No. You’re going to use the added entry as a way to direct the user to the main entry, where they will find all those extra details. And you, a content creator within this technology of card catalogs, are going to assume that the users of that technology have picked up the knowledge of using it, and so will know to move from added entry to main. (Whether users of any technology do know how to use it and where they learn that is a story for another day.)

And this step is where I spaced out. I actually know all of this and have even written a nice explanation about added entries, card catalogs, and catalog records in my book. (Go read it on pages 120-132 and if you find any mistakes, please very gently notify me.) Because the book I was working with didn’t have an author, I guess Past Sarah decided the easiest way to find it would be by looking it up by the publication date, rather than the title. (If an item doesn’t have an author, its main entry heading becomes the title.) And then I figured that was enough, since I really only needed the call number, and I never bothered considering that I was looking at the added entry and not the main. Oops.

I’m glad Erin reminded me of the difference so that I could share it with you. Even if you spend most of your time with digital databases, where lots of different entry points can point to the same record, it can still be helpful to remember that how we find our way to information can shape what information we find.

Some notes

Cataloging follows very precise rules and my examples here do not, which is another way of saying, This is my imaginary scenario and so I just wrote out cards that showed what I needed them to show in a format that aligned with what you’d encounter on a card. Older cards don’t follow DCRM(B) either. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

If you think the cards of card cataloging are lovely in and of themselves, you might like the Library of Congress’s gorgeous book on the subject:

I got so caught up in re-browsing my copy when I was looking to model my cards that I almost forgot that I was in the middle of writing this letter. Buy it direct from the Library of Congress shop—it’s even on sale at the moment!

Thanks and see you soon!

Two weeks in a row! I can’t promise that I’ll stick to this frequent of a schedule but I didn’t want to wait to issue this addendum. I’ll try next time to back out to something a bit more general in scope that doesn’t require a working knowledge of formats or enthusiasm about cataloging. I’m always happy to hear from you with requests!

Until next time, mind your p’s and q’s—and always check the main entry!