Library charging trays for vertically oriented 3 x 5″ index cards

Amidst my seemingly ever-growing collection of index card boxes and trays, I’ve been contemplating getting something that would store cards in a vertical orientation rather than the traditional horizontal. As I’ve been watching the market over the past couple of years, nothing had really come up that suited the bill until this past summer. 

That’s when I saw a small handful of what are known as library charging trays pop up. 

What is a library charging tray?

These library charging trays were traditionally used in libraries in the mid to late-twentieth century at the circulation desk. A librarian would remove the book card from the pocket adhered to one of the inside covers of the book. This card would identify the book’s author and title and generally have a list of borrower’s names along with either the due date or the return date, or sometimes both. Once filled out, the card would be placed vertically in the charging tray behind a tab indicating its due date. The librarian would then place a due date card into the empty pocket with a stamped due date on it. Alternately some of these pockets may have been printed with grids into which a due date would be stamped. 

The last page and inside cover of a the library book Webster's Early European History featuring a book card with the author's name and book title along with a list of due dates and borrower's names sitting on top of the book pocket glued to the inside cover. On the last page of the book is a 3x5" slip glued onto the page with a grid of four columns for stamping due dates. There are about six dates stamped in from the early 1980s.

The library would then have in their charging tray an ordered list of checked out books which they could later use to follow up on if they became overdue.

Upon return of the book from the patron, the librarian would then be able to match up the title and stamped due date in the pocket with that from the card in the charging tray and refile the book card into the pocket of the appropriate book before returning it to the shelves for the next patron.

Yellow due date card for the Crowell Public Library which has it's address at the top underneath which appears three rows of black stamped due dates spanning from July 11 2016 to March 24 2018.

Models and Materials

Most charging trays I’ve seen range from 1 row of cards and have gone up to 5 rows. Most common are 2 and 3 row models. 

I’ve yet to see older trays made out of oak. Most seem to be from the 1960s onward and are often constructed of maple. Gaylord Brothers and Remington-Rand seem to have been the primary manufacturers of these, but it’s possible that other companies may have made them as well. 

My charging trays

When I acquired my Shaw-Walker desktop two drawer card index, I mentioned that I had purchased a few charging trays. Let’s take a look at the two of them briefly.

One tray has two rows for cards while the other has three. The double tray is definitely manufactured by Gaylord Bros, Inc. and still has the original manufacturer’s sticker on the bottom. The other is unmarked and is most likely a Gaylord too as Remington-Rand typically put a small metal badge on most of their products. This one not only doesn’t have that traditional badging, but also doesn’t have any telltale nail holes where it may have originally been. The double tray has 12 1/2″ of internal space for cards in each row and the triple has 10 3/4″ in each row which would give them enough space to hold approximately 3,500 and 4,500 index cards respectively.

The double tray seems almost new despite some minor wear. (We all know how rough those librarians can be.) The triple tray shows more signs of wear including some old labeling with handwriting that provides a fun level of patina.

Three column library charging tray sitting on top of a library card catalog.

Side view of a three row charging tray with index cards sitting in it.

View into a charging tray to show the metal follower blocks which hold cards upright.

Close up of the dovetail wooden join on the corner of a library charging tray

New uses for library charging trays

Naturally one could immediately consider using these trays to hold index cards for their note taking and filing practices. This is particularly useful for those who might appreciate a physical zettelkasten form factor for using vertically oriented 3 x 5″ index cards. (I’ve never seen a charging tray made for 4 x 6″ index cards and would suspect they never existed.)

Beyond this, those who are into the idea of maintaining a hipster PDA or who have 3 x 5″ index cards for general productivity purposes would certainly appreciate these boxes for their filing and archiving needs. If you’re unfamiliar with these sorts of practices see my article about The Memindex Method. A charging tray would certainly make an excellent home for a modern day Memindex practice. Pair it with an index card wallet and you’re off to the races as if you were living back in 1903.

What other functions could these trays be upcycled for? I’m curious to hear others’ ideas here.

Finding  Charging Trays

Used/Vintage Charging Trays

With the digitization of most library circulation processes the noble charging tray has generally gone out of fashion. At the height of their use, most libraries didn’t really need many of them, so they were never as ubiquitous in the broader market the way other card index boxes and cabinets were. As a result it’s rarer to see them on the secondary/used market in comparison to their brethren. When you do find them, it’s more likely that you’ll see them incorrectly listed as card index drawers. I suspect it would be incredibly rare that a second hand seller would know what they actually were, but even if they did, the key words in their name mean dramatically different things now which swamp the search engine optimization algorithms with things which patently are not these boxes.

This means long search times and patience to attempt to track them down. I’ve seen several listed as “rare” which they are to some degree, but not as rare as most sellers think they are in terms of pricing. They primarily seem rare because no one knows what to call them and as a result pricing can be all over the map. I’ve seen some two and three drawer versions listed for $300 and up. For a more reasonable reference I got both of mine for a total of $60 and a very modest shipping charge. I’ve seen one or two others sell for $20 to $30 each. A couple of trays I saw in Spring 2023 which listed for several hundred are still gathering dust on vintage store shelves.

Ferris Bueller standing in the bathroom of Chez Quis meme image with the superimposed words: "The Gaylord Bros. Library Charging Tray. It is so choice. If you have the means, I highly recommend picking one up."

New Charging Trays

If you don’t have the patience to get something vintage, you might try purchasing new charging trays from Brodart. According to my research, they’re the only player left making and selling them outside of one online retailer in India offering a 5 tray model for for 2″x3″ and 3″x5″ cards for about US$50.

Sadly, Brodart has had some ongoing issues with their online web store this fall, so one would need to download a copy of their catalog and order via email, phone, or fax. In my physical copy of their most recent catalog they appear in the Processing and Circulation section on page 137. They offer both single and double trays in either a light or a darker finish. Prices for them range from US$76.76 to 149.06. The smaller trays will fit 600 cards with the larger trays fitting 1,000 cards each. Given their size, they might make for rather elegant desktop boxes. On that same catalog page Brodart also conveniently offers green pressboard card guides (dividers) which are either plain or labeled with the months of the year in a vertical 5″ tall by 3″ wide configuration. Separately they have some manila dividers with 1/3 cut alphabet tabs (A-Z) for helping you to sort and separate your cards.

For those who might prefer to use these in a zettelkasten practice, Brodart also makes borrower’s cards and book cards in a range of light to medium-weight card stock (similar to index cards) which are pre-printed with a range of metadata fields common to these types of cards (author, title, date loaned, borrower’s name, date returned, date due, room number, etc. Most of these cards are listed on catalog pages 128 and 129. Some of these would be particularly useful for making bibliography cards which would use some of these preprinted data fields. The date and patron portions could then be used to note page numbers and either quotes from the text/one’s own ideas respectively. All these cards are conveniently lined for writing your notes. Naturally one could just as easily use their own 3 x 5″ index cards of choice in a vertical orientation.

Brodart book card featuring two lines at the top for the title of the book and the author followed by a two column lined grid with spaces for Date Due and Borrower's Name
Brodart Book Card Catalog Number 23-242 906

Shaw-Walker Two Drawer Quarter Sawn Wooden Card Index File for 4 x 6″ Cards

Many may recall that I’ve been refinishing vintage mid-century furniture for over a decade now. I’ve also been more cognizant of converting my commonplace book practice into a more Luhmann-artig zettelkasten one

While doing this, I’ve had a hard target search for available card index files for the better part of two years. I’ve purchased a large metal one and a small handful of open wooden desktop models.[1][2] I’ve shied away from some of the wooden 2-6 drawer models because they’re listed for exorbitant prices on eBay, Facebook Marketplace, Craigslist, and other online retailers where sellers think they’re worth far more than they really are. Hint: you’ll find lots of listings, but you won’t see very many actual sales—a good indication that the market is dramatically overpriced.

However, this past week I saw a reasonable listing for a two drawer quarter sawn Shaw-Walker card index made for 4×6″ index cards for $32.95. Since cardboard boxes sell for almost $20 each, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity, so I made the minimum bid and naturally won the auction uncontested.

Side view of a two drawer Shaw-Walker card index with the drawers slightly opened.

The box showed up yesterday afternoon and had roughly the wear I expected it would. It took some serious elbow grease, but I managed to clean about a half century of dirt and grime off of it, and it looks significantly better already. I don’t think I’ll do a full refurbishment of it, preferring to appreciate some of the natural patina. I will probably give it another solid cleaning later this week and then a coating of wax or furniture polish to shine it up. I’m wavering on polishing what I suspect are probably bronze drawer pulls and leaving their dark oxidized beauty.

Two drawers pulled slightly open on a 2 drawer card index showing the tab dividers and index cards inside

For a small, solid wooden box, it does bring an inordinate amount of joy. 

While showing some wear, particularly to the top, it still has most of its original Shaw-Walker gilded logo. The box is 15 5/8 x 14 11/16 x 6 3/8 inches, 14.6 pounds, and each drawer has 11 3/4 inches of space for cards, so it should comfortably fit about 3,300 index cards. I intend to use it as my day-to-day desktop card index and split the two drawers between my card-based productivity system (based on the Memindex) and my zettelkasten practice. The balance of my notes will go into either my Arca Studiorum or possibly another metal card index I’ve had my eye on for a while, but which needs some significant restoration.

A close up of the worn gold and black painted Shaw-Walker label on the top of a wooden card index

Dirty white rag with a variety of black spots on it from cleaning a wooden card index

In addition to the thrill of having a new analog piece of office equipment, another unexpected benefit it will impart by being on my desk is that it seems to be just the perfect sort of height for placing my laptop onto so that my camera is just that little bit higher for better video conference call framing. Now I won’t need to drag down the dictionaries or Wolfram’s New Kind of Science off the shelf anymore.

Coda: I just made a purchase of two wooden library card charging trays which will hopefully arrive later this week. More on that after they arrive…