“I’m sad to see [our card catalog] go. This is truly the end of an era. But it is time to move on.”    

Paul Courant, University of MichiganDean of Libraries 


At MetaJure, we often get asked “Where in your smart document management system is the document profile that our lawyers need to fill out?”  This question usually reminds me of a childhood friend whose dad told the story of his father’s reluctance to drive a car with one of the first automatic transmissions.  My friend’s grandfather believed that a car couldn’t’ possibly work if it didn’t have both a clutch pedal and a gear shifter.  What the grandfather didn’t realize was that technology had  significantly advanced and that there was a new, automated, more efficient way in which a car’s gears could be shifted.

Perhaps a more current analogy for the outdated nature of manually populated document profiles is what happened to library card catalogs (at least for those of us who spent time in a library prior to 1990). The French revolutionary government created the first library card catalog in 1791, after confiscating books from religious institutions to create France’s first public library system. They called their new system the “French Cataloging Code of 1791” and used the back of playing cards to record each book’s bibliographic information.  Nor only was paper in short supply, but playing cards were rigid, had blank fronts and had historically been used in France to record marriages and deaths.


By the end of the 19th century, 3″ x 5″ cards had become the standard for recording information about library books as libraries abandoned other cataloging formats, including such as paper slips, guard books, and yes, even used playing cards.

The Library of Congress rolled out its card catalog service in 1911 and card catalogs quickly spread throughout American libraries.

The purpose of the library card catalog was twofold:  first, to create a complete inventory of the books a library had in its possession and, second, to help users find and retrieve a particular book or books that met their needs.  The need for a complete inventory was met by having librarians manually create three catalog cards for each book: (I) an author card; (ii) a title card, and (iii) a subject matter card. The sum of the author cards (or the title cards or subject matter cards) equaled the total number of the books in the library’s collection.  You could also count the respective cards to determine the number of books the library had by a given author or on a given subject.

The need for a retrieval system was met by adopting an agreed-to organizational structure and hierarchy by which the books would be cataloged (the infamous Dewey Decimal System). Librarians classified each book in the collection by its subject matter, added the appropriate Dewey Decimal Number to the spine, wrote the number on the corresponding library cards (title, author and subject), and then filed the book according to its number.  

complex set of rules governed how a librarian classified books covering multiple topics.  For example, the system determined whether a book on the influence of the Great Depression on American Art, got filed with books on the Great Depression or with books about American Art.    

Users had 3 approaches to retrieving books.  If they knew the author, they could find the book by the author’s name in the author card catalog and then use the book’s Dewey Decimal Number to find the book on the shelf.  Similarly, if they knew the title of the book, they could go to the title card catalog and follow a similar path.  If they knew neither the author nor the title but knew the subject matter of the books they were interested in, they could go to the subject matter catalog to locate what books the library had around that subject.

This manual cataloging and retrieval process worked well for a lot of years, but became increasingly challenged at the end of the 20th Century for a variety of reasons. First, growth in knowledge requires corresponding changes in the classification system that catalogs that knowledge.  Knowledge exploded at the end of the 20th century as topics like acid rain, climate change, the Internet, biotechnology and PTSD developed and the Dewey Decimal System constantly had to be revised.  Needless to say, getting agreement on revisions to taxonomies like the Dewey Decimal System can be a complicated and time consuming process.

Second, the rapid growth of the world’s knowledge made staying ahead of the exponentially growing piles of new information to be cataloged overwhelming.  

Third, as knowledge and information digitized, it quickly became apparent that smart, computerized search coupled with some basic organizational ideas would be a far better cataloging and retrieval system.  This lead to the development of organizations like the Online Computer Library Center (OCLC) and its widely adopted WorldCat database and search engine that libraries around the world now subscribe to. WorldCat uses technology to dramatically improve and enhance a user’s experience when retrieving library knowledge.  It also enables a host of new features, such as WorldCat Identities which provides synopses about a given author, publication timelines, audience levels, and related identities and subjects in a “tag cloud”.  

All you need to do is to think of the power and simplicity of finding books on Amazon to know what is possible through the use of digital technology.  Imagine, trying to find and buy a book on Amazon using an “old school” card catalog system.

So, what do clutches and card catalogs have to do with the manually populated document profiles required by almost all of today’s document management systems?  The simple answer is that just like automatic transmissions improved driving and systems like WorldCat and Amazon improved the cataloging, finding and retrieval of published knowledge, technology exists today that enables a more efficient and more powerful way to tag, organize and retrieve legal work product. And just as Amazon and WorldCat use 21st Century technology to give you greater information about a given book or to even proactively suggest books to you, technology exists today that enables the same types of experiences for lawyers when it comes to storing and retrieving their firm’s legal knowledge.  

Systems like CaseMaker have shown that headnotes are relics when it comes to case law retrieval.  Smart Document Management Systems like MetaJure are showing that manually populated document profiles are also a thing of the past. By nature, we lawyers look to the past and are slow to grasp that there are better and more efficient ways to accomplish age-old tasks.  Given the state of the legal profession, however, maybe the time has come for us to warmly embrace the future.  

Oh, and by the way, there are some really great things you can do with those card catalogs you find for sale on eBay

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