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The Collation

The key to removing a card catalog rod (literally)

Thanks for all the great guesses at the identity of the December Crocodile! In fact, the mystery object is a tool for removing the rod from a particular type of card catalog drawer (see Folgerpedia‘s Card catalogs article for information about our card catalogs and how to use them).

Metal tool and card catalog drawer

Tool for pulling out this type of card catalog drawer rod. (Photo by Erin Blake)

Ironically, Richard M. Waugaman’s tongue-in-cheek proposal that it’s a worn-out corkscrew comes closest to the actual function: this type of card catalog rod is removed by jamming the tool onto the end of the rod and pulling, just like you’d pull a cork from a bottle. It’s sometimes called a “key” but it is purely a friction fit, not something that triggers a release mechanism. Personally, I call them card-catalog-rod-puller-outers.

Using a card-catalog-rod-puller-outer to pull out a rod. (Photo by Erin Blake)

The discoloration that Daniel R Harris noted about a third of the way from the end matches the depth of the knob on the rod, and was caused by decades of scratches from twisting the rod out of the drawer with the tool attached.

Hollow tool and the knob it fits over. (Photo by Erin Blake)

Card catalog rods are a convenience as well as a safety feature. Without them, an entire drawer of cards could be dumped by accident (inconvenient) causing the person who has to refile them to have a heart attack (dangerous). Rods also serve a quality-control function, as described at the end of the post.

The rod keeps the cards from falling out. (Photo by Erin Blake)

There are five main types of card catalog drawer, and all five can be found at the Folger.

Friction-fit rod: If you don’t have a card-catalog-rod-puller-outer, try pulling with just your fingers (sometimes the rods are quite loose). If that doesn’t work, try pushing on the rod from the other end (a small crowbar can be useful).

Pulling out a friction-fit rod. (Photo by Erin Blake)

Threaded rod: Grasp the knob, turn it counter-clockwise to unscrew, and hope that the person who last screwed it in had a gentle touch (if not, a vise grip wrench can be useful).

Unscrewing a threaded rod. (Photo by Erin Blake)

Lift-and-pull rod: In one smooth motion, lift up on the knob and pull out the rod. This can be done one-handed if you use your thumb on the drawer handle for leverage.

Lift-and-pull rod. (Photo by Erin Blake)

Hidden-release rod: Pull the drawer out a little bit, peer inside, and look for a tab or button of some sort. Figure out if it needs to be pushed, pulled, slid to the side, or whatever. Push it, pull it, or slide it to the side with one hand while pulling on the rod’s knob with the other hand. Extra points for doing this while holding your notepad under your chin and clenching a pencil between your teeth.

Rod release mechanism you have to push down on while simultaneously pulling out the rod. (Photo by Erin Blake)

No rod at all: Pull the drawer out a little bit and hope the card you need is near the front. If it’s near the back, and you have to pull the drawer almost all the way out, do not lift up on the drawer unless you are prepared to fully support its weight and carry it to a level surface.

Card catalog drawers with no rods. (Photo by Erin Blake)

Rods also serve a quality-control function: when filing cards, you always file “above the rod.” That is, you leave the rod in place, and file the cards where you think they ought to go. Once you’ve filed all the cards in a batch, you or someone else can easily double-check the filing by flipping through the cards that are sticking up. After verification, it’s time to “drop the cards” by pulling the rod out just far enough to allow the new cards to fall into place as you wiggle the rod back in.1

Card file drawer with cards filed “above the rod” so that they can be double-checked before being “dropped.” (Photo by Erin Blake)

Note that even though we no longer update or add to the card catalogs at the Folger, we do still have a card sorter and a marked-up copy of the ALA Filing Rules for Catalog Cards that shows which options the Folger opted for.

Card sorter with ALA Filing Rules open to a page with “Use this” written in the margin next to the “alternative rule” for filing “ä, ö, ü, in the Finnish, German, Hungarian, Scandinavian and modern Turkish languages as if written ae, oe, ue.”

You just never know.

  1. Pulling the rod all the way out is a rookie mistake: it’s really awkward to get it started back in again.


Actually this is something I’ve always wondered about (yes, I’m a bit sad). So I assume that means the slot that some old catalogue cards have must have been intended for easier removal of individual cards in case someone had made a mistake, to save the librarian the trouble of having to remove the rod? It’s obviously not meant to be used for placing the cards, otherwise they would be damaged the moment they were added to the catalogue.

Elisabeth Chaghafi — December 4, 2018

Dear Erin, I love you. I have been using an old 15-drawer card catalog as my “office” catch-all for years. The rods were in the way, but I could not figure out how to remove them. The hidden release technique did the trick. I had planned to use several of the drawers complete with the rods for my addresses, not particularly into tech, love paper. I had not been able to find the cards librarians used. Now, without the rod, index cards will fit enabling adding and removing addresses. Thank you, thank you, thank you.
Be safe out there.

Carolyn Schneider — April 2, 2020

If you ever decide you would like to utilize the rods again “The Library Store” sells them and they come in various weights and colors and even have the hole for the drawer rod punched out.

Skip Hoffman — May 27, 2022

Carolyn Schneider, I have a 25-drawer card catalog that’s missing 11 rods. I would love to get my hands on the ones you just pulled out of yours. Sounds like a match made in heaven!

Cindy Paino — April 19, 2020

Having found a 15 drawer card catalogue a few days ago for restoration, I too was missing a couple of rods. There are currently 2 sellers on Ebay that have these for sale. Be sure if purchasing to pay attention to the length you need although I imagine you could safely buy a longer rod and hacksaw it to length.

Skip Hoffman — May 27, 2022

I bought an old set of six card drawers and repurposed it into an end table. I want to reinstall rods so that I have at least one drawer as a show piece for how these things work. I bought rods separately and cannot for the life of me figure out how to make the rod work. How do you make it stay in?

Tanya Misselt — June 7, 2022