Footnotes on the History of Classification
Newberry Library Bulletin, 1979
By David Stam
An interesting exchange of letters between William Stetson Merrill (1866-1969), the venerable author of Code for Classifiers (1914 and later editions) and long-time Newberry cataloger and pensioner, and Charles A. Cutter (1837-1903), founder of the Cutter classification scheme, has come to light in the Newberry archives. The letters, dated March 1895, reveal a direct, almost acerbic style suited to the pioneer days of American librarianship. They read as follows:
March 23, 1895
Dear Mr. Cutter,
There exists, as you must know, a repugnance on the part of many persons to the notation adopted in your classification: I refer to the designation of classes by letters. The more usual designation of books is by means of numbers, either integral or decimal. Now I perceive that you have reduced your scheme of History to figures, except in the case of a few subordinate classes. Could you not do the same thing for the rest of the classification and thus give one alternative for persons preparing figures? There is no hope of the Newberry adopting your scheme with its present notation. But the department of History is satisfactory as far as the decimals have been used. If the classification is to be used, we must use a numbering scheme of our own. But of course it is preferable that the maker of a classification should renumber it, if that is to be done. I ask you therefore, whether it is your opinion that the notation should be changed to a scheme similar to your History scheme of numbers; and secondly whether you are willing to undertake such a renumbering in case the classification should be adopted here. I might suggest a third question: whether you would undertake take to renumber yourself, if you knew that if you did not, somebody else would.
Yours most cordially,
Wm Stetson Merrill
Cutter’s reply was immediate, forthright, and pensive:
Mar. 25, 1895
The feeling against the use of letter in notation seems so utterly senseless, that my first impulse is to refuse to have anything to do with any modification of it. But I have learned to distrust first impulses and I will take the matter into consideration. Even if I find myself willing to cater to this weakness I may feel that I have not time. It is no slight task to work out a notation & I am now very busy. I have been willing to go out of my way to accommodate & help along, but it is of no particular advantage to me that my classification should be used in the Newberry. Nevertheless I am foolish enough to desire it, & I shall probably end by doing what you want.
C. A. Cutter
The Newberry did, of course, adopt a modified form of the Cutter classification, letters and all. Whether its use here was of any “particular advantage” to Cutter we do not know, but it has perpetuated his memory in ways for which he is as often damned as praised.
Writing in 1955, twenty-five years after his retirement from the Newberry, and fourteen years before his death at age 103, Merrill gave his own recollections of how the Newberry classification system developed:
The third project of the Cheney administration was reclassification of the library (John Vance Cheney, second Librarian of the Newberry, 1894-1909). A day or two after Mr. Rudolph had placed me in charge of classification (Alexander J. Rudolph came to the Newberry as Assistant Librarian in 1894, and invented the Rudolph Indexer as well as a pamphlet holder known as the Rudolph Binder. Both inventions were short-lived, as was Rudolph, who committed suicide in 1904 after his dismissal from the Newberry staff)… [Rudolph] replacing Evans, he came to my desk and announced: “We reclassify the whole library, Mr. Merrill, and we use the Dewey Decimal Classification.” (Rudolph himself was largely responsible for the dismissal of Charles Evans, the bibliographer of American imprints. Merrill replaced Evans as head of classification in 1894). We talked for a few minutes about the difficulties that we had encountered with the Poole system (William Frederick Poole, Newberry’s first Librarian, 1887-1894), especially the notation, in recent years. Evans’ modification of the numbering scheme by adding zeros was at best a makeshift; and the library’s collections had outgrown the original scheme drawn up by Dr. Poole. I agreed with Mr. Rudolph that decimals were superior to integral numbers, in that they permit of indefinite expansion without alteration. But I remarked that, if the Library were to be reclassified, why not benefit by the new ‘Expansive Classification’ of the veteran librarian Charles A. Cutter, which was up-to-date and, as it was then in process of publication, would be in line with the latest advances of scholarship.
Mr. Rudolph listened to me with apparent interest. “But Cutter uses letters for his notation,” he said; “we use decimals.” I told him that I too did not like the Cutter notation of letters; but I did wish that we might benefit by the precision and detailed working out of the scheme itself, if we could. Dewey had, at that time firmly resisted any revision of his printed classification, claiming that it would inconvenience the many public libraries that were using it. If librarians wished to change or expand the printed scheme, they must, he insisted, use letters to supplement the decimal numbers.
“Let me think about this matter a little, if you will,” I finally asked Mr. Rudolph. He assented and left me. I surmise that I had given him an idea: Why not introduce at the Newberry something new in classification, as he had done in cataloging by his indexer. The thought fell in with his fondness for invention.
I began thinking the matter over and an idea came into my own mind: Why not use the Cutter classification, but with a modified notation? The first letters of the Cutter notation designated main divisions of human knowledge: A-Generalities, B-Philosophy, C-Christianity, D-Church History; and so on, to Z-Bibliography. Subdivisions and topics were designated by further letters. Instead of doing so for subdivisions, why might not the Newberry use numbers: A 1, A 2, B 1, B 2, which would be treated as decimals, admitting of indefinite enlargement: A 11 to A 19, A 111 to A 199. Initial O would be used for forms like periodicals, e.g. B 07-philosophical periodicals. A decimal point would separate the class number from the author number, also a decimal. Cutter-Sanborn numbers would be used in classes, like Biography or works of individual authors in Literature, where elaboration of the author number was called for. For Bibliography I devised the employment of lower case letters, corresponding with the capitals. Thus, if F 8962 is for history of Chicago, f 8962 is for a list of books on it. The decimal author numbers were to be taken from a table that I drew up: AA to ZZ - 01 to 99. These so-called Merrill numbers have since been used for alphabeting by decimal numbers in other libraries.
Such was my scheme. I numbered in pencil a few pages of the Cutter Classification and showed them to Mr. Rudolph. “We can thus make use of the most up-to-date system of classifying human knowledge as presented in books, and yet use decimals for indefinite expansion without altering earlier work,” I told him. The idea seemed to impress him favorably, especially the use of decimals. I have since been told that Mr. Rudolph has been quoted as having devised decimals for the Newberry classification. He did propose decimals in reclassifying the library. I worked out the scheme described above. (see, Early Days at The Newberry Library , Oconomowoc, Wisconsin, 1954-55; typescript, II, 10-12)
“Yes, Mr. Merrill, we do that,” was Mr. Rudolph’s final word to me, to go ahead with the reclassification of the whole library, using the Cutter system fitted with a decimal notation. Mr. Cheney undoubtedly approved the plan and authorized it. They seem to have had full confidence in my ability to carry it out. They never discussed with me afterwards any details but left them for me to work out. The reclassification of the Newberry Library occupied us ten years. When I came to the rare books kept in cabinets, I prefixed to the call-number the word ‘Case’, thereby indicating where they would be shelved.
Merrill also notes a number of Newberry staff members who went on to join the Library of Congress staff and who helped in the development of the Library of Congress classification scheme. From the vantage point of 80 years, it is clear that the Newberry, in its classification problems, suffered the usual disadvantages of the pioneer in that it had locked itself into a system which could not take advantage of subsequent developments and economies. Needless to say, the debate over classification at the library is not yet ended (the library switched to the Library of Congress classification system in 1977 to facilitate the use of computerized cataloguing).