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classification was originally suggested by Mr. N. B. Shurtleff's “Decimal system for the arrangement and administration of libraries,” published at Boston in 1856. But in its present form it has been developed by Mr. Melvil Dewey into a most ingenious scheme for distributing the whole vast range of human knowledge into ten classes, marked from 0 to 9, each of which sub-divides into exactly ten subclasses, all divisible in their turn into ten minor divisions, and so on until the material in hand, or the ingenuity of the classifier is exhausted. The notation of the books on the shelves corresponds to these divisions and sub-divisions. The claims of this system, which has been quite extensively followed in the smaller American libraries, and in many European ones, are economy, simplicity, brevity of notation, expansibility, unchanging call-numbers, etc. It has been criticised as too mechanical, as illogical in arrangement of classes, as presenting many incongruities in its divisions, as procrustean, as wholly inadequate in its classification of jurisprudence, etc. It is partially used by librarians who have had to introduce radical changes in portions of the classification, and in fact it is understood that the classification has been very largely made over both in Amherst College library and in that of Columbia University, N. Y., where it was fully established.
This only adds to the cumulative proofs that library classification cannot be made an exact science, but is in its nature indefinitely progressive and improvable. Its main object is not to classify knowledge, but books. There being multitudes of books that do not belong absolutely to any one class, all classification of them is necessarily a compromise. Nearly all the classification schemers have made over their schemes—some of them many times. I am not arguing against classification, which is essential to the practical utility of any library. An imperfect classifica
tion is much better than none: but the tendency to erect classification into a fetish, and to lay down cast-iron rules for it, should be guarded against. In any library, reasons of convenience must often prevail over logical arrangement; and he who spends time due to prompt library service in worrying over errors in a catalogue, or vexing his soul at a faulty classification, is as mistaken as those fussy individuals who fancy that they are personally responsible for the obliquity of the earth's axis.
It may be added that in the American Library Association's Catalogue of 5,000 books for a popular library, Washington, 1893, the classification is given both on the Dewey (Decimal) system, and on the Cutter expansive system, so that all may take their choice.
The fixed location system of arrangement, by which every book is assigned by its number to one definite shelf, is objectionable as preventing accessions from being placed with their cognate books. This is of such cardinal importance in every library, that a more elastic system of some kind should be adopted, to save continual re-numbering. No system which makes mere arithmetical progression a substitute for intrinsic qualities can long prove satisfactory.
The relative or movable location on shelves is now more generally adopted than the old plan of numbering every shelf and assigning a fixed location to every volume on that shelf. The book-marks, if designating simply the relative order of the volumes, permit the books to be moved along, as accessions come in, from shelf to shelf, as the latter become crowded. This does not derange the numbers, since the order of succession is observed.
For small town libraries no elaborate system of classification can properly be attempted. Here, the most convenient grouping is apt to prove the best, because books are most readily found by it. Mr. W. I. Fletcher has outlined a scheme for libraries of 10,000 volumes or less, as follows:
A. Fiction (appended, J. Juvenile books); B. English and American literature; C. History; D. Biography; E. Travels; F. Science; G. Useful arts; H. Fine and recreative arts; I. Political and social science; K. Philosophy and religion; L. Works on language and in foreign languages; R. Reference books.
Numerous sub-divisions would be required to make such a scheme (or indeed any other) fit any collection of books.
In arranging the main classes, care should be taken to bring those most drawn upon near to the delivery desk, or charging system of the library.
The alphabet is usefully applied in the arrangement of several of the great classes of books, and in many sub-divisions of other classes. Thus, all English and American fiction may be arranged in a single alphabet of authors, including English translations of foreign works. All collected works, or polygraphy, may form an alphabet, as well as poetry, dramatic works, collections of letters, and miscellanea, arranged by authors' names. In any of these classes, sub-divisions by languages may be made, if desired.
The class biography may best be arranged in an alphabet of the subjects of the biographies, rather than of writers, for obvious reasons of convenience in finding at once the books about each person.
Catalogues of libraries are useful to readers in direct proportion to their fulfilment of three conditions: (1) Quick and ready reference. (2) Arranging all authors' names in an alphabet, followed by titles of their works. (3) Subjects or titles in their alphabetical order in the same alphabet as the authors. This is what is known as a “Dictionary catalogue”; but why is it preferable to any other? Because it answers more questions in less time than any other.
The more prevalent styles of catalogues have been, 1. A list of authors, with titles of their works under each. 2. A catalogue of subjects, in a classified topical or alphabetical order, the authors and their works being grouped under each head. 3. A catalogue attempting to combine these two, by appending to the author-catalogue a classed list of subjects, with a brief of authors under each, referring to the page on which the titles of their works may be found; or else, 4. Appending to the subject-catalogue an alphabet of authors, with similar references to pages under subjects.
Each of these methods of catalogue-making, while very useful, contrives to miss the highest utility, which lies in enabling the reader to put his finger on the book he wants, at one glance of the eye. The catalogue of authors will not help him to subjects, nor will the catalogue of subjects, as a rule, give the authors and titles with the fullness that may be needed. In either case, a double reference becomes necessary, consuming just twice the time, and in a two-column catalogue, three times the time required in a dictionary catalogue.
The reader who wants Darwin's "Origin of Species” finds it readily enough by the author-catalogue; but he wants, at the same time, to find other works on the same subject, and all the author-catalogues in the world will not help him to them. But give him a dictionary catalogue, and he has, in the same alphabet with his Darwin, (if the library is large) dozens of books discussing the theory of that great naturalist, under species, evolution, Darwinism, etc.
Thus he finds that there is no key which so quickly unlocks the stores of knowledge which a library contains, as a dictionary catalogue.
The objections to it are chiefly brought by minds schooled in systems, who look askance on all innovations, and instinctively prefer round-about methods to short-hand ones.
Ask such an objector if he would prefer his dictionary of the English language arranged, not alphabetically, but subjectively, so that all medical terms should be defined only under medicine, all species of fish described only under fishes, etc., and he will probably say that there is no analogy in the case. But the analogy becomes apparent when we find, in what are called systematic catalogues, no two systems alike, and the finding of books complicated by endless varieties of classification, with no common alphabet to simplify the search. The authors of systems doubtless understand them themselves, but no one else does, until he devotes time to learn the key to them; and even when learned, the knowledge is not worth the time lost in acquiring it, since the field covered in any one catalogue is so small. Alphabetical arrangement, on the other hand, strictly adhered to, is a universal key to the authors and subjects and titles of all the books contained in the library