Library Hand, the Fastidiously Neat Penmanship Style Made for Card Catalogs


This February 17th article in Atlas Obscura chronicles the creation of “library hand,” a writing style specifically designed for catalog cards. As described by Ella Morton, the need for a uniform handwriting style grew out of a meeting of library professionals in 1885. During this meeting, the individuals present discussed the challenges of their work and handwriting on catalog cards was identified as a issue that could be tangibly improved. The librarians acknowledged that flourish-heavy, individualized writing made catalog cards difficult to read and a more uniform, type-like style would be beneficial for both librarians and library users.

Melvil Dewey led a charge to find and adopt the “most legible” form of handwriting for use in libraries. The resulting style, known as library hand, was influenced by Thomas Edison’s experimentation with penmanship styles for telegraph operators. Library hand focused on uniformity over beauty and sought consistency in size, blackness of lines, slant, spacing, and form of letters and numbers. The style prioritized legibility over haste, so library hand was not necessarily the quickest way to scribe catalog cards. Dewey and company examined hundreds of card catalogs to search for penmanship problems and develop ways to solve them. For example, it was determined that a round-topped three should be standard, rather than a square-topped three, because the round-topped three was less likely to be mistaken for a five.

The article features images of the uniform letters and numbers (as above) and scans of catalog cards written in library hand. The cards included are part of the The Dictionary Catalog of the Research Libraries of the New York Public Library, 1911-1972. These volumes feature the catalog cards included in the NYPL card catalog prior to the transition to a digital catalog. The volumes can be found on the shelves at NYPL’s Schwarzman Building as well as in libraries around the world, preserving record of this specific penmanship and piece of cataloging history.

Megan Westman, LIS 653-01 Spring 2017

Morton, Ella. (2017, February 16). Library hand, the fastidiously neat penmanship style made for card catalogs. Atlas Obscura. Retrieved from

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by Hugh McLeod

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