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Rubenstein Library Manuscript Card Catalogs

This guide contains an overview of how to use the historical Rubenstein Library card catalogs, digitized and available for searching through the Internet Archive.

Overview of Rubenstein Library's Card Catalogs

Before the development of computers and the Internet, libraries used card catalogs to store information about what was in their collections. This guide explains how to access and use digitized scans of the historical David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library Manuscript Card Catalog, which are available to search and download from the Internet Archive.

card catalogs in Perkins Library

Duke's Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library (RBMSCL, now called the David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library) used card catalogs between the 1930s through the early 2000s. Index cards were typed by hand with descriptive and location information for the library's manuscript collections, and filed in huge wooden drawers for researchers and librarians to use in their research. As computers became more commonplace and library technology evolved, the card catalog became too bulky and labor-intensive to maintain. Around the year 2003, the paper card files were "frozen," and collections were managed exclusively through the digital catalog. After that point, any changes or updates to the collection's descriptions, contents, or locations were made in the digital catalog, and the card catalogs became obsolete.

The wooden drawers of catalog cards remained in the Rubenstein Library Reading Room until 2011, when they were removed as part of the library's renovation. The drawers of paper cards were imaged by Duke Libraries' Digital Production Center in order to preserve their historical description, particularly their narrative text summaries describing the content of the different collections. Following digitization, the drawers and most of the 300,000 paper cards were discarded.

The Data+ Rubenstein Library Card Files project

As part of the 2021 and 2023 Duke Data+ Program, teams of Duke University students migrated scans of catalog cards to create the Rubenstein Library Manuscript Card Catalog, a new collection on the Duke Libraries' Internet Archive page. Details about the Data+ program are here. Though outdated, the card catalogs remain a useful historical reference tool for researching Rubenstein Library manuscript collections. Researchers interested in reading the cards for themselves can now access them directly through the Internet Archives site. Please be aware that some language present in the card catalog files is harmful or biased, and does not reflect current library standards or values. Read more about the Duke Libraries' Harmful Language statement here.

The Data+ teams also developed a dataset for future card file research, conducted textual analyses on the cards' content, and developed visualizations to better understand the types of collections represented in the card file. The team's dataset and details about their project can be found in the Duke Research Data Repository and on the Duke Libraries' Github site (click here).