Alex Wright

In Search of Cutter's Catalog

May 18, 2006

Last week, I paid a visit to the Boston Athenaeum, one of the world's oldest private subscription libraries. Tucked down a quiet block at 10 1/2 Beacon Street, the building is easy to miss. Step inside, however, and the doors open on a remarkable institution whose reserved Brahmin demeanor belies its lasting influence on American intellectual life.

Boston Athenaeum

Founded in 1807, the Athenaeum functioned as an important scholarly center throughout the nineteenth century, hosting one of the country's largest library collections and serving as a gathering place for the city's literati (including the likes of Emerson, Longfellow and Lowell). Membership was originally limited to 1000 subscription holders, for whom the power to admit guests conferred enormous prestige in Victorian Boston. Despite its heritage of exclusivity, however, the Athenaeum also served as an archetype for the modern public library (in an age when public libraries simply did not exist).

Today, the library's half-million volume collection scarcely competes even with mid-sized university libraries. Nonetheless, it still holds important collections in American history, literature and fine arts. Current members Ken Burns and David McCullough still do most of their research there.

On a rainy Thursday in May 2006, the building was quietly buzzing with Beacon Hill ladies, retired professorial-looking types, and a smattering of tourists like me taking the free public architecture tour (no photos allowed inside, alas). The building houses a cascade of reading rooms spread across five floors, each dotted with portraits, paintings and classical sculptures. Flat-screen terminals and Ethernet ports spring up between the columns and arches. In a few casual glances at the shelves, I spotted titles like Debrett's Peerage, Baronetage, Knightage and Companionetage, accounts by nineteenth-century explorers, and a hodgepodge of novels and poetry chapbooks.

The library also contains other libraries within. In an elegant wooden case on one floor rests the entire personal library of King William III (as in William and Mary), procured by one eager Bostonian in exchange for a coveted membership subscription. Another room houses a collection of letters by confederate soldiers in the Civil War (which Ken Burns put to such good use). In the top-floor boardroom sits most of George Washington's personal library.

But I did not come to the Athenaeum to see the books. I came to see the catalog.

In 1868, the library hired a talented young Harvard librarian named Charles Cutter to catalog its collection. In his landmark Rules for a Dictionary Catalog, Cutter established the first truly systematic cataloging rules, with an elaborate framework for assigning call numbers involving combinations of letters and numbers to generate unique identifiers for each book. Most importantly, he introduced the first comprehensive set of rules for subject classification, laying the foundation for the Anglo-American Cataloging Rules still used in most major American libraries.

Despite his association with the socially exclusive Athenaeum, Cutter was a great populist, who embraced the user-centered ideal that "the convenience of the public is always to be set before the ease of the cataloguer." He made the catalog easier to use by putting each entry on an index card and storing it in a drawer. While Cutter did not invent the card catalog (precursors had appeared in eighteenth-century France), he was the first librarian to use it to create a fully cross-functional index of authors, titles and subjects. His card catalog experiment was so successful that his colleague (and later rival) Melvil Dewey appropriated the idea when he introduced his simplified cataloging scheme, the Dewey Decimal system.

Today, the Library of Congress classification is a direct descendant of Cutter's catalog. Academic librarians still assign so-called "Cutter numbers" as part of the standard call number. The Athenaeum catalog has long since abandoned Cutter's original classification for the Library of Congress system, but the Cutter numbers are still in use for most of its older books.

Down in the basement, in a cramped hallway by the elevator, sits Cutter's original catalog, stored in a line of drawer chests snaking around a winding hall. Open the drawers and you'll find rows of fastidiously preserved catalog cards, smaller than 3x5 index cards, each hand-written in meticulous, curlicued nineteenth century script. Each card carries a standard bibliographic entry, accompanied by one of Cutter's call numbers. Tens (maybe hundreds) of thousands of these little handmade cards fill the drawers, in silent testament to Cutter's original vision.

Today, many libraries have thrown away their old card catalogs after converting them to digital records. To its great credit, the Athenaeum has recognized the value of Cutter's catalog as a historical artifact in its own right. It is the secret heart of the Athenaeum.

File under: Informatics

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