A major ongoing background project at St Hugh’s College library is that of reclassification or, more specifically, changing the shelfmarks on older stock according to the latest edition of the Dewey Decimal Classification (DDC) in line with the bespoke requirements of the library. These requirements are based on extensive consultation with the College’s Fellows in each subject area, and on a more general assessment of the needs of members as a whole.

Published by the OCLC , but edited by a team at the Library of Congress, DDC is currently in its 23rd edition. New editions are published every seven years or so, when trends in the books being published at the time press the editors to revise the classifications in order to better match the needs of DDC’s users.

Reclassifying large collections is an onerous task and no library can afford to implement a new DDC Edition simply because it is available. However, one of the practical consequences of a DDC Edition changing both numbers and the precise subject definitions they relate to means that, over time, new acquisitions are classified and shelved somewhere other than the books a library already holds on those subjects.

So, reviewing shelfmarks on older stock gives an opportunity to re-sort the collection so that older and newer material that would otherwise be shelved apart can be collocated. It also allows for old labels or handwritten codes to be replaced with standardised, easy-to-read labels, making finding books or determining where they should go back on to the shelves that much easier for readers and staff-members alike.

One of the customisations adopted at St Hugh’s is that numbers will be no longer than three digits after the point, that the final digit must not be zero, and that the number will be followed by a three-letter code. This determins that items with the same numbers be shelved alphabetically. The code is the first three letters of the lead author’s surname or, in the case of edited works, the first three letters of the first keyword in the title, which ensures that if future editions are edited by different people at least they will be shelved together. For example:

  • 111 GOS (subject: Ontology; author: Gosden; title: Social being and time)
  • 409 KAR (subject: Incidence of and public measures to prevent disease > History, geographic treatment, biography; author: Karlen; title: Man and microbes)
  • 51 BEH (subject: General topics in behaviour; editor: Krebs; title: Behavioural ecology)

My first contribution to this project has been to reclassify our anthropology/archaeology books that had the shelfmark 572, which is now used for biochemistry. Before the books can be relabelled and redistributed to their new locations each must go through a review process to determine the most appropriate shelfmark for it according to the criteria now applied. Sources for this include what other Oxford libraries that use Dewey (not many) use if they have the same items, what the colophon says (Library of Congress cataloguing-in-publication data included behind the title page of many US books states the Dewey number and the edition current at the time of cataloguing), and looking up via their respective web catalogues what the Library of Congress and the British Library have on their records. Likely candidate numbers are then checked in the online version of DDC 23 (“WebDewey”) and a table constructed of titles, with their proposed numbers and the sources for these recommendations.

Only once a whole number section (such as 572, excluding newer items already catalogued to the current criteria) has been examined and the proposed numbers agreed, does the fun of relabelling and moving each book begin. The items under 572 were dispersed far and wide, mostly to 300-309 but also to the: 110s, 150s, 170s, 200s, 210s, 390s, 550s, 570s, 590s, 610s, 700s, 720s and the 990s.

On reflection, it is a very satisfying procedure to make an intellectual judgement about how a book should be classified, enact it, and then give that book a new home, amongst other titles that were not previously its neighbours. This illustrates very clearly how much we, as readers and librarians, assume about a book from where it is shelved, and the other books that surround it.