Monday, August 5, 2013

Library Classifications of Yore: Shurtleff’s Decimal System

Did you know that, before the Dewey Decimal System was invented in 1876 and widely adopted by libraries, there were other decimal-based library classification systems in place? One interesting system was developed by Nathaniel B. Shurtleff, M.D., chairman of the State Library of Massachusetts trustees in the mid-19th century. His self-designed, self-published classification system and manual titled A Decimal System for the Arrangement and Administration of Libraries (1856) was originally introduced into the Boston Public Library where it had been in “practical operation there since the summer of 1852.”

The classification system was heavily geared toward library administration as well as the physical arrangement of books in a library. It dictated that the alcoves and shelves should be arranged in multiples of ten, with each shelf labeled with a number. For example: “if a book is on shelf No. 208, it will be found on the 8th shelf of the 10th range, and (deducting 1 from the 2 in place of hundreds) of the 1st alcove.” Each book was also to be marked with the shelf number, as well as another number that represented its “true position on its shelf”—starting with 1 at the left. Further letters and numbers help denote multiple volumes in a set, multiple copies of a book, newly added books, etc.

 This system benefitted item retrieval and reshelving, but put both patrons and librarians at a disadvantage when wanting to conduct more precise searching and discovering of materials by subject matter on shelves. Card catalogs at this time were also simplistic in design, and were just beginning to give patrons an idea on what library collections had to offer. In 1857, as the State Library was changing to a new classification system, State Librarian George S. Boutwell, in the library’s 1857 annual report, acknowledges Shurtleff’s assistance during the process. Although the library did not adopt Shurtleff’s system, as Boutwell concedes that it was designed for “library apartments constructed with reference to the system, and for large circulating libraries”, he does praise its “simplicity, completeness and practicalness,” its potential to save on time and labor, and its ability to “promote convenience and despatch”. In this sense, Boutwell believed that the system would still be of great service to the library. It wasn’t until Melvil Dewey’s subject-based hierarchical decimal system was designed that the modern-day concept of library classification began to evolve and meet the needs of both the institutions and patrons alike.

Kaitlin Connolly
Reference Department