Thursday, 6 February 2020

Classifying a Book

Today on a library e-list a cataloguer sent a request to librarians for a classification number for a book she was working on by the Anglican bishop and scholar, Herbert Hensley Henson. Here is my reply to this request.

If I may, I wish to reply to Christine’s email by talking about some things I do in my approach to cataloguing.

I was taught to identify the main subject of a book when classifying it for inclusion in a collection. This means working with key words in the title, blurb, table of contents, and author introductions. On very rare occasions over nearly forty years now, I have had to actually start reading the book itself to understand what on earth is going on. With these key words in mind, the process of checking against schedules or indexes of your classification scheme takes me usually fairly quickly to the main number area of the book, if not in fact the precise subject number. When in doubt about refining the subject after the decimal point, I keep to the main number, which in Dewey means the three-digit number.

Collections evolve, such that even though we may all use the same classification system, our library develops individual clusters of subject material, all in the one sequence, on the shelf. These areas are unique to the individual library and we need to be conscious of them during classification. Christine’s book is a likely case in point. There is the general subject (spiritual healing), then there is the main subject under which this subject falls. A reasonable judgement is made as to where such material goes in our own collection, never mind anyone else’s. I also have to keep in mind author numbers. Herbert Hensley Henson, he himself, could have his own number allocated by a previous cataloguer; or I may simply think it best to put this book together with others by HHH on a similar subject. In this way the user will find all the books more easily and, even better, serendipitously.

Trove and our own catalogues provide a service unimaginable to our ancestors: they give classification numbers in the records. While this is time-saving it can also engender a reliance on those numbers that brings with it a corresponding  erosion or slackening of our own classification skills (see above). I tend to treat the numbers on Trove as a guide or suggestion, not always as the final word on the subject. When a Trove record doesn’t supply a number, as is often the case, we are thrown back on our resources. Online resources are not always going to come up with the goods, and when they do we cannot always be certain that they are correct. I can add here that Trove records frequently supply more than one number for a book in a single record. This is because libraries have found the need to shelve the book in different places, all of them valid within the terms of classification, which is why no two libraries in the world have exactly the same set of numbers on their collection.

Ditto our own catalogues. I would strenuously warn readers against using the Carmelite Library’s numbers as an authority, simply because of the amount of in-house numbering of certain subjects in spirituality devised to deal with the scale of the specialist material. These changes are described quaintly in our procedures manuals as ‘modified Dewey’. Even with theological libraries that are more religious about sticking to the literal Dewey, the same book by Henson will be found at different numbers, and for good reasons known best to the cataloguers of those institutions.

It is good to familiarise yourself with your collection, how subjects are ordered and how numbers have been allocated in the past. In this way you start to find that many books fit at one number and not another.

Philip Harvey
The Carmelite Library
Middle Park

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