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 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.
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.
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.
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.