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

Midcentury Gaylord Bros., Inc. Oak Modular Library Card Catalog Acquisition

In a quest to expand on my analog office practices, last Saturday, I drove out to Rancho Cucamonga to purchase a spectacular midcentury Gaylord Bros., Inc. modular library card catalog. I spent parts of the week making some minor tweaks (gluing some broken wood rails) and cleaning it up in the garage. Last night, as a present and to celebrate the start of Autumn, I brought it into the house to reassemble it. It now lives in the dining room adjacent to the the office and near both the bar as well as the library that others in the household prefer to call our formal living room. I honestly didn’t pre-plan it this way, but given our floorplan, it is sitting in the “heart” of our home.

Multi-sectional 20 drawer wooden library card catalog in the corner of a room with white walls and a hardwood floor. Oblique view of Gaylord Bros. library card catalog in the corner of a room with colorful paintings hanging on the opposing walls.

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.

Metal name plate nailed into oak. It features the company name Gaylord Bros., Inc. (in a large stylized script) below which reads "Syracuse, N. Y. - Stockton, Calif." and next to which appears a circular logo with entwined letters G and B around which is written "Established 1896".

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.

View of the bottom of a card catalog drawer with a finger actuating a spring loaded metal lever to unlock the card catalog's metal rod. Close up view of the metal bracket for holding a card catalog rod. The rod is missing so that one can look into the hole to see the internal locking mechanism.

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.

Library card cabinet drawer with a metal drawer pull labeled with a tiny red heart

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. 

Oblique angle of a bottle of Glenmorangie scotch and two crystal old fashioned glasses in open adjoining drawers of a library card catalog
Surely this is what Hemingway would have done?!

Angle on a row of five library card catalog drawers open with bottles of wine displayed in each.

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

Close up of Gaylord Bros. library card catalog with a smaller desktop card index and black Smith-Corona Clipper typewriter on top

What would you do with a library card catalog?