Three of the four sections are all similarly made out of oak and appear to be co-contemporaneous in terms of style and materials (solid wood and metal). The final section, a five drawer insert is obviously of later manufacture and while stained brown with what appears to potentially be a mahogany frontispiece, has plastic trays with metal fittings and what appear to be galvanized steel card stops. The other sections comprise a low level table-like support with four legs; a 5×3 drawer section; and a 2 inch thick top which covers the holes in the top of the modular drawer sections and provides a flat surface. The top section also features the traditional Gaylord Bros., Inc. name plate.
Given the subtle intricacies of the construction, I’ll provide some photos of how the pieces dovetail together as well as the smaller mechanics and features in a future post.
Fully assembled the piece is 33″ wide x 17 3/8″ deep and stands 36 1/2″ tall. With internal drawer space of 13 3/4″ for the 15 drawers and 14 1/2″ for the other 5, there should be space for approximately 38,715 index cards.
I’m thrilled that all the fittings seem to be original, and all the drawers have their original card catalog rods. The drawers on the 5×3 drawer section have a spring loaded mechanism under the front of the drawer which when pushed to the left side unlocks the card catalog rods which have beefy brass knobs. The 5×1 drawer section rods are unlocked by pulling up on them slightly from the bottom and then pulling them straight out.
I’ll have to do some more in-depth research of old Gaylord Bros. catalogs, but based on materials, manufacture, and style, I’m going to guess that the older portion of the card catalog dates from the mid-30s to the 1940s, while the newer section is likely late 60s. The overall size and standardized, modular structure allows the pieces to sit together in quite a clever way and were made over a long enough period of time that different pieces from disparate decades still work well together. While the wood grain, stain, and even fittings are all slightly different, the to different styles work fairly well together.
For those who appreciated my recent article Market analysis of library card catalogs in 2023, I’m thrilled to report that I purchased this stunning beauty—one of the prettiest, oldest, and best conditioned catalogs I’ve seen listed—for a very reasonable $250. I suspect the seller, who is a vintage collector, seasoned eBay seller, and is well aware of the market, may have gone even lower, but I was happy to overpay a little. Given the online market, something like this would usually list for between $1,200 and $1,600, but would likely sit unsold and unloved for years.
I love the style and the condition, and it does make for a fantastic little piece of fine furniture with a lovely patina. Unexpectedly, someone else in the house may be even more enamored of it than I, which bodes well for its actual long term care and use. Currently it will serve as an archive storage for some of my 3 x 5″ index card note collection in addition to storage of a partial library card cataloging for some of our physical books. I also have cards from an older rolodex and a small recipe collection that will take up residence. Other empty drawers will house a small wine selection along with several bottles of scotch until they’re pushed out by the growing collection of cards.
Other than general maintenance I don’t think I’ll be doing any other restoration work on it beyond the small fixes I’ve already made.
On the top of the catalog, in addition to space for writing notes, I’ll keep one of my two desktop card indexes and a 1948 Smith-Corona Clipper.
What would you do with a library card catalog?
Combined with this there was a resurgence in mid-century design esthetic which had some furniture restorers and designers buying and doing full (and very pretty) expensive restorations of older 20s-40s versions which sold at auctions for $4,500 and up. Given the rarity of some of these older, fine furniture versions along with the work in restoration and the limited market only those who had a tinge of nostalgia and money to burn made purchases which resulted in a limited number of actual sales.
These two factors mean that almost all of the listings for library card catalogs are heavily overvalued on eBay, Facebook Marketplace, Craig’s List, Etsy, etc. The fine furniture restorations have set an artificially high price point which some feel theirs must match as well. The difference in quality however is stark. Because of their size and lack of functionality, there is a relative glut of them on the market which all bear inflated prices. Those who originally spent inordinate amounts for them, feel they will still have that same value to others, so they list them online for inflated prices.
I’ve been closely watching the online “market” for them for over a year and see the same several dozen or more listed across the country usually in the range of about $30-$60 per drawer. Many are listed as local pick up only, which further hampers the overall market. This also brings up the issue of shipping a 60 drawer card catalog which can easily run in the $800-$1,500+ range which usually requires additional shipping logistics involved with freight. Most catalogs are already overpriced, but adding an additional $1000 tax on top is a bridge too far for all but the highest end of the market. Some platforms like Etsy and eBay which take cuts of the final sale also add to the cost of the sale (at least to the owner).
In the year and a half or more that I’ve been watching, I’ve only seen a handful of actual sales, all of which were local, and many of which were in the Los Angeles area. All of these sales have been for listings which eventually were reduced down to the $15 per drawer range. One local sale was in Wisconsin was for $10 per drawer (a 30 drawer file) and another in Los Angeles was for $12.50 per drawer (on a 20 drawer file).
A note on condition
Outside of a small handful of fine furniture listings in the $4,000+ range, most ex-Library card catalogs are generally very well worn and not in great condition which makes them less valuable as decoration pieces. In fact, many are often missing their original card catalog rods, have dents, dings, or other cosmetic issues. Some are missing drawers or have replacement drawers which don’t match. Some may be slightly mismatched having been purchased in different eras as modular pieces and put together. Frequently they have been modified from their original states to include inserts or other material to fill in the holes which where almost standard in the bottoms of the drawers.
If you’re in the market, know that it is tremendously inflated, a fact which most sellers are aware of as they’ve got them listed, some for many years, not resulting in actual sales. If you really want one and find it in a reasonable condition, I highly recommend making an offer for it at about $10 per drawer and potentially go up to $15. Anything higher than that is overpaying based on actual recent market conditions. If you have the money to burn, feel free, but keep in mind that like many others in the past, once the initial nostalgia has passed, you’ve probably got a large piece of relatively non-functional furniture in your home.
It’s not common, but some government auction sites will list card catalogs for auction from time to time. Because they actively want to sell them these can be purchased in the $2-10 per drawer range or less. Often they tend toward the larger 60+ drawer range, aren’t in good condition, or need to be picked up and shipped to your final destination, usually within a few days of purchase as the original owners don’t or explicitly won’t handle shipping. These are likely to need some restoration work to be decorative pieces in many homes.
If you want something brand new, you can check out Brodart, which is the only remaining card catalog manufacturer/sales firm I’m aware of in the United States. Their systems are modular, so you can pick and choose what you’d like to have. The only caveat is that they start at $1,700 for their smallest 9 drawer model and can go up to $11,648 (plus shipping) for a full 60 drawer model. The other potential drawback, for some, is that they are made of a mixture of wood, metal and plastic versus the all wood and metal fittings of older vintage models.
If you’re in the market primarily for nostalgic reasons, then you might also consider looking at some of the older desktop wooden card catalogs which are often much less expensive, take up far less space, and can be wonderfully decorative. Some of the smaller two to six drawer desktop models have the benefit of potentially serving as recipe boxes or paper rolodexes, zettelkasten, or simply small office storage. Here again, the online markets are likely to be heavily overpriced with 2 drawer models being continually listed at $150 and 4 drawer models in the $250-400 range. These sellers know that these prices don’t result in actual sales as they’ve been sitting on them for long periods of time (presumably hoping to get lucky). Here I’d recommend you make offers in the $20-30 per drawer range to see what you can find. Another benefit is that these smaller models are far cheaper to ship across the country. For additional advice on these, see: The Ultimate Guide to Zettelkasten Index Card Storage.
Brodart is a library services company based in Pennsylvania that supplies materials to institutional libraries that still has a variety of supplies not only for libraries and book lovers alike, but for amateur and professional zettelmacher(in) as well.
Most of their focus is on 3-by-5 inch index card sized material, but maybe with the re-popularization, they might add more support for the 4-by-6 inch card enthusiasts?
Perhaps if the demand for these older systems goes up, they’ll not only have more offerings, but the price will come down through economies of scale?
Let’s look at what they’ve got available.
Cards and Card Guides
On the card side, they’ve got a variety of options that aren’t as readily available at most office supply stores. If you’ve got an old school library card catalog with rods, you’re probably going to want cards with holes pre-punched. Of course they’ve got them in colors as well as without holes too.
With a sizeable card collection you’re likely to want some card guides, so they offer the traditional A-Z 1/5 Cut Card Guides as well as Blank Catalog Card Guides, with those holes pre-punched for convenience.
Most may already have an indexing system built into their system, but if you don’t and want to go with a classic Dewey Decimal set up, they’ve got you covered.
Perhaps you’ve got a sizeable digital card collection already, and have been jonesing to make the jump to analog? They’ve got printable card sheets so you can print out your digital cards relatively easily and continue without losing all that work. Or maybe you’re the mid century/ Umberto Eco purist who wants typewritten cards, but don’t want to retype them all? They’ve got both 4-up and 3-up versions as well.
Let’s say you’ve got a long standing practice of making bibliographic cards. You need some cards to hold not only your meta data about the materials you’re reading, but you want to add your fleeting notes to them the way Luhmann and others have. Brodart has a wide variety of pre-printed cards that could serve this purpose. Some have printed sections which say “Date Loaned” and “Borrowers’s Name”, with sections for data below, but these could just as easily stand for page number and lined space for your important notes.
There are also a number of other versions of this sort of card depending on what you want. Try these or search for the many others which may suit your fancy:
- Brodart White Book Cards with Two Columns and Ruled Top
- Brodart Book Cards with Author, Title, Date Due, and Borrower’s Name
- Brodart Medium-Weight, White Book Cards with Ruled Top, Date, and Issued To
Maybe you haven’t made that slip box purchase yet, but want something shiny and new? Brodart has you covered here as well. They’ve got a few different options for a small desktop slip box or a fully modular system that you can add to over time.
Stand alone boxes
Brodart has at least two desktop boxes, with 12 and 9 drawers respectively.
- Brodart 12-Tray Card Catalog Cabinet with Solid Oak Front
- Brodart Nine-Tray Card Catalog Cabinet with Solid Oak Front
Want to design your own system that’s expandable with your card collection? They’ve got a five drawer wide system with options for 1, 2, or 3 row tall sections that you can build up to suit your needs. Start with their table and legs, add a one or more sections of card files, and then top it off with a cover. If you’d like, they’ve also got an interstitial piece with drawer pulls so that you’ve got a writing surface built into your zettelkasten. Build that system up to your ceiling!
- Brodart Cabinet Bases for Card Catalog Sectional Cabinets
- Brodart 15-Tray Unit for Card Catalog Sectional Cabinet
- Brodart 10-Tray Unit for Card Catalog Sectional Cabinet
- Brodart Five-Tray Unit for Card Catalog Sectional Cabinet
- Brodart Cornice Top for Card Catalog Sectional Cabinet
- Brodart Sliding Reference Shelves for Card Catalog Sectional Cabinet
4-by-6 inch Card Boxes
Brodart is a bit thin on the 4-by-6 inch category, but for the beginning zettelmacher(in), they do have some nice sized, portable, archive quality boxes you might like to start your collection. See their Postcard Boxes.
Of course there are lots of other options in the space. Some of these box systems can become pretty expensive, and for the price you might be as well off purchasing a used card catalog which you can restore or you can find restored ones online. Some of them even go to the level of fine furniture and can quickly go for over $5,000.00.
If you prefer the vintage 20 gauge steel esthetic (you know I do!), you can find lots of used, but still great condition slip boxes online in places like eBay or on Craigslist.
I and others have written some advice about other card storage options on a Reddit community targeted at analog zettelkasten in the past.
What do you use? What do you want to use? Are you going to custom build your own? Have you seen other companies like Brodart that still support the manufacturing of these sorts of tools for thought? Please share your ideas and supplies below.