The Library will be closed on Monday, May 27, 2024, in observance of Memorial Day.

Yes, Central Library Still Has Catalog Cards

Central Docents, Central Library,
close up of card catalog
Close up view of the original Central Library card catalog, photo credit: Keith Kesler

While it's true that information on the 2.8 million items in the Central Library is on computer servers that take up a tiny space compared to the hundreds of drawers of catalog cards once used, one can still view some of our collections the old-fashioned way, complete with Dewey decimal number, title, author, and which department to find the book.

The library has several places to view card catalogs, and one is a work of art.


The delight-inducing art piece, A Place for Everything and Everything in its Place, is featured in the two elevator cars on the north side of the building, accessible in the Tom Bradley Wing.

One car has cards for the "Comprehensive" and the other for the "Complete" works of various authors and topics. When moving, the elevator cars expose cards in the shaft window that reflect books that are found on the floor the elevator is passing.

Artist David Bunn was given nearly 2 million catalog cards to play with for his art installation, yet he only used a little more than 9,500 in the two elevator cars. He has, since the early 1990s, been creating art projects, found poetry, and sculptures with the remaining cards.

He signed his work of art with his library card (printed with blue ink on white paper as they were then) long before library cards were issued as bar codes on plastic to scan books during checkout. You can find Bunn’s library card in the car on the north side (the one on your right when facing the elevators). It’s on the bottom of the right wall nearest the elevator buttons.

photo of elevator car

A Place for Everything and Everything in Its Place is the art installation created by David Bunn in 1993. Lucite sheets cover cards in the elevator cars, one with a collage of those featuring the “Comprehensive” titles and the other with “Complete” titles of books in the library, surely a pun as a library is never complete, photo credit: Keith Kesler


No matter where your family comes from, or which port of entry they arrived, the extensive genealogy collection can be a valuable tool in your search. One can view genealogy card catalogs on lower-level four, the lowest level, in our extensive collection. The cards, alphabetized by surname, feature the Dewey decimal numbers to books that lead patrons to the pages on which they may indeed find information about their family’s ancestry. Each of the more than 236,250 cards features pointers to journals and magazines or the Dewey decimal numbers, book title. The plan, said Genealogy Librarian Julie, is to fully bring the information from the card catalog to the database on the library website. Since 1997, librarians and aides have hand-typed into a database tens of thousands of cards, each taking about five minutes to insert into the database. To date, they’re only up to the letter E!

While we are a long way off from completion, a lot of patrons, surprisingly, enjoy ferreting through the cards to discover a wide variety of options for research into their family’s history. Some patrons come in nearly every day to pursue their family research.

To lookup information already on our web site, go to Research & Homework, hit G in the list of databases, for Genealogy & Local History Index, and a plethora of information will pop up for you to peruse. A library card is not necessary to use the database, and it can be accessed from any computer anywhere.

As an aside, our map section, especially the atlases, are fantastic in aiding the genealogy research. Some of the more than 2,000 atlases we own are written in the languages of the countries they represent, and they offer patrons a visual glimpse of their ancestral country of origin.

Among the other options for research are the California Index and the Pamphlets and Manuscripts Collection and more than 150,000 titles and includes material in census records, some dating back to 1790; unique local family history documents; heraldry and coats of arms; immigration records; cemetery records, and town histories.

card catalog with 315 drawers

The surname Index for the library’s genealogy includes 315 drawers of about 750 cards each for a total of more than 236,250 cards patrons can use when they visit the History/Map/Travel section, photo credit: Diana Rosen


The catastrophic fire of April 1986 wasn’t the only one Central Library sustained. A second fire occurred months later in September in the old Art and Music Department. This fire destroyed many books, sheet music, and scores, some more than a century old. Catalog cards singed by the fire can be viewed in the card catalog cabinet nearest in the information desk area.

Fortunately, the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra came to our rescue with the gift of thousands of pages of orchestra scores. Since then, we’ve been able to replace scores of Broadway shows and choral pieces, and much more, which we can lend to more than 300 music organizations throughout the area including schools, choirs and chorales, orchestras, and chamber music groups.

close up of a musical score

Synopsis of Music is on the backside of cards on song sheets and songbooks that survived the second fire. Note the singed edges of many of the cards that miraculously survived the second fire of 1986, in September, photo credit: Diana Rosen

close up of a card catalog drawer

Synopsis of Music is on the backside of cards on song sheets and songbooks that survived the second fire. Note the singed edges of many of the cards that miraculously survived the second fire of 1986, in September, photo credit: Diana Rosen

The catalog cards on music that remain reflect two topics: song sheets and the paper art image collection. The song sheet cards will, eventually, be included in our databases, but for now, patron requests for sheet music from the early part of the 20th century to today are found by filling out requests for our clerks (or librarians) to find them for you.

Senior Librarian Burda, said, “Today, access to a lot of information on music is easily available via the internet. However, despite the ease of access, copyright laws prevent a lot of patrons from retrieving specific information on the music and lyrics. Fortunately, they can still find that information from the paper versions of sheet music and songbooks.”

If music is your passion, you can borrow a keyboard or guitar by the hour to use in the library, if you have a library card. Check for the signup sheet in the back of the Art, Music, and Recreation Department closest to the elevators on the second floor.


A second, and a considerably smaller collection of card catalogs in the Art, Music, and Recreation Department, contains information on thousands of pieces of art images that remain in the library’s collection. The actual images have been disposed of because, thanks to the internet, they are now obsolete. Many of these were not copyrighted nor did they have traceable information about their original publications which makes attribution difficult.

The large art image cabinets in the department were so rarely used the last 20 years that the minimal circulation figures deemed them unnecessary. Every effort was made to save art created by California-born artists or those who made their home in California, and those images have been digitalized or will be soon.

Note: A workshop space has replaced the cabinets for conducting art classes.

wood encased metal cabinets

The card catalog cabinets shown above hold information about thousands of art images that were popular for patrons, particularly magazine art directors and graphic designs before the internet made them obsolete, photo credit: Keith Kesler

Social Science

The smallest collection of card catalogs is near the librarian’s information desk in the Social Science/Philosophy/Religion department on lower level three. It is rarely used and usually only by librarians. It contains hundreds of cards that reflect some of the most commonly asked questions of the department librarians. Most of the departments on the lower levels have similar small collections.

close up of a card catalog drawer

Card catalog behind the reference desk on lower level three, photo credit: Tina Lernø

Please join us for a docent-led tour of the Central Library.

Written by Diana Rosen, Central Library Docent