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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.

Main Entry Catalog: Introductory Cards

When using the Main Entry Cards, there are two main sorts of cards you will encounter: Introductory and Narrative. About 15,000 cards are "Introductory cards," meaning that they contain the custodianship information for the manuscript collection. Although typed by hand, most cards have information recorded in a consistent format. Understanding where different sorts of information will appear can help you browse the cards relatively quickly. In this example:

Sample introductory card










  1. Main entry of the collection: The main entry is usually a person or organization's name, as that is how manuscript or archival collections tend to be grouped in Rubenstein Library. The main entry is usually the person who created or who collected the materials being described. In this example, Daniel Abernathy is the main entry.

  2. The title of the collection: The title in the card catalog will almost always be "Papers", "Records," "Letters," or other relatively generic term. Most of the manuscripts described in the card catalog were described using now-outdated library standards.

  3. The dates of the collection's materials. In this example, the dates of the letters are 1862-1865.

  4. Geographical location of the collection. This collection was created near Petersburg, Virginia.

  5. Dates relating to cataloging history. These dates can be useful to trace a collection's provenance and the library's custodianship of a collection over time. In this example, the card was created in 1944, and is likely the first description this collection received once it was acquired by the Duke Library Manuscript Department. Sometimes there will be multiple dates, as different staff worked on a collection, or as a collection grew over time with new additions.

  6. Size of the collection. This section occasionally records later additions and their extent as well. In this example, the collection has 19 items and therefore is probably only 1 folder of materials. This may not reflect the current size of the collection, because library collections may grow or shrink over time.

  7. Earlier shelf locations in the library's stacks. The card catalog used to tell you exactly where the collection was shelved at one point. This information is now inaccurate and should be disregarded. Use the online catalog to learn where different collections are stored.

Main Entry Catalog: Narrative Cards

There are about 35,000 "Narrative" cards in the Main Entry Card Catalog. These are essays or notes authored by librarians in the mid-20th century. They summarize the historical context and topical content of each collection. Some narratives are very long, extending through several typed cards. Others are brief, like this example. The length of the description depends on the size of the collection being described and the author's assessment of the collection or creator's historical significance.

  1. Main entry of the collection. In this case, Daniel Abernethy is the main entry, as he is the author of the letters.

  2. Title of the collection. Most collections described in the card catalog will be titled Letters, Papers, or Records, reflecting earlier descriptive standards for archival or manuscript collections. If cataloged today, this example would be called the Daniel Abernethy Papers.

  3. Dates of the items in the collection. This example dates from the American Civil War period.

  4. Geographical location of the collection's creation. This collection was created in Petersburg, Virginia.

  5. Size of the collection. This collection is considered small, with only 19 items.

  6. The narrative text summarizing the collection. Narrative summaries in the card catalog vary widely and reflect the collecting and research priorities of the Manuscript Department and Duke faculty at the time of description (in this example, the text was written in 1944). The summary note highlights the Confederate States of America Army service experience that Abernethy relays to his family as the main content of the collection. The highlighted text in the example card reflects the card author's negative assessment of the potential research value of the collection. You will encounter biased statements like these throughout the Rubenstein Library's card catalogs.

Subject Card Catalog

A handwritten note at the beginning of the Rubenstein Library's Subject File Card Catalog says that it was first began in 1944. Subject card headings in this card catalog might include specific people, organizations, locations, formats, or topics.

The Subject File cards are arranged alphabetically. The heading appears in capital letters at the top of the card. The manuscript collection containing materials about this heading is listed next, followed by a specific citation (if one exists). In this example, there is a reference to aeronautics in the Hinsdale Family Papers, in a letter dated 1918 Dec. 17.

The library's Subject File card catalog is full of hints or breadcrumbs that may help researchers learn more about specific topics in Rubenstein's manuscript collections. However, they are incomplete and often contain outdated or inaccurate language or terms, some of which may be offensive or harmful to users.

Harmful Language Statement

Many entries in the Rubenstein Card Catalog include assessments of a collection's research value, assumptions about the creator's abilities or motives, and other subjective or presumptive statements that do not necessarily exist in the collection itself. The words appearing in the card catalog can be useful in understanding how manuscripts at Duke have been stewarded over time. The cards often reflect the attitudes of their librarian authors, and at times they are racist, colonialist, or sexist.

Biased and harmful language, which appears throughout the card catalog, contradicts the Rubenstein Library's Guiding Principles of Description and does not reflect our current staff's commitment to inclusive descriptive practices. Refer to the online catalog or the library's collection guides to see a more current representation of Rubenstein Library's manuscript and archival collections. Read more about Duke Libraries' anti-racism work here.