Have you a card catalog? Katharine L. Sharp’s Catechism for Librarians

Cover of "Catechism for Librarians"
Cover of “Catechism for Librarians”

The more things change, the more they stay the same, or so you will think when you look at this laundry list of key considerations Katherine L. Sharp outlines for someone setting up a library in her writing “Catechism for Librarians.” Unlike a religious Catechism, she outlines not what to believe but a series of questions a librarian must answer for herself. Despite being only 3 by 5 inches in size, 24 pages long, and never published, these 180 questions still provide a reasonable guide to someone setting up a library today. And their relevance is still more interesting when you consider that this was written in 1891, with no knowledge of the sweeping changes in librarianship and technology that were to come. A few of the more prescient questions are presented here in their modern context: 

She starts the book off with an important consideration:

3. What kind of lib.?

This question is an early recognition that there are different aims to different libraries. Before the institution of a special children’s section, grade school libraries, or a children’s librarian she also asks you to consider the needs of children at your library with this next two questions:

16. Relation to public schools?

17. Any special efforts for the young?

As well as the importance of library advertising:

20. Any special method of developing interest?

Some questions presage the growing importance of library instructional work:

107. Is card catalog generally used by public?

108. Is time given to teach them to use it?

And some questions reflect on the stressful considerations of being a public servant:

21. Affected by legislation state or local?

47. How frequent are changes in governing board?

49. Are appointments subject to political influences?

50. Is management mainly in the hands of the librarian?

And her emphasis on the importance of keeping statistics will sound familiar to any front-line librarian today:

152. What statistics are kept?

153. Method of keeping statistics?

154. What value placed on statistics?

A few things age the little book (such as referring to library users as “readers,” when now we typically say the less book-focused “patrons”) but this diminutive hand-written manuscript provides wonderful insight into what one of the first professional librarians in America saw as the most important considerations for establishing a library.

A full scan of this Catechism has now been made available online, and the original is available for use at the University of Illinois Archives, Katharine L. Sharp Papers, Record Series 18/1/20, Box 2, Folder “Catechism for Librarians.” A longer analysis of this manuscript is also available in the academic article Katharine Sharp’s “A Catechism for Librarians” Revisited by Cynthia S. Fugate Technical Services Quarterly Vol. 1, Iss. 3, 1984.

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