Melvil Dewey Rolls in His Grave

I can’t think of a less likely subject for a newspaper editorial than the merits of LC Classification systems. Yet today’s New York Times has just that.

It talks about the New York Public LibraryWhose Catnyp catalogue I use every week. moving away from a home grown classification system, which while delightfully ideosyncraticAll such is relative., confounded users accustomed to conventional catalogues and defied updating.

In the Canadian law library context, all major private law firms with national practices, save one, use modified KFThe best article on KF and the development of Canadian law library cataloguing comes from UBC. And the academic libraries all seemed to be on the same page until the University of Toronto started embracing both KF and KEI wait for Ted Tjaden to explain all.

Speaking of classification systems, the controversy over the Calhoun Report commissioned by the Library of Congress is heating up. Inside Higher Education is reporting on Thomas MannNo not that Thomas Mann. who has prepared a detailed rebuttal for the Library of Congress Professional Guild, an American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees union.

“[The report’s] recommendations to eliminate Library of Congress Subject Headings and use ‘fast turnaround’ time as the ‘gold standard’ in cataloging, are particularly unjustified,” he wrote. He believes that the suggestions would “have serious negative consequences for the capacity of research libraries to promote scholarly research.”

Nan Ernst, an archivist with the Library of Congress, believes that such changes, if carried out, would have a negative “ripple down” effect on college and university libraries. “The traditional and primary function of libraries to focus on print publications is getting short-shrift. Everyone is excited about digital libraries, but a whole lot of important information could soon be lost.”

Funny, I never thought library catalogues would be so newsworthy.

As the NYT opines:

Sooner or later, everyone who loves a library broods about how the books are arranged.


  1. I am a huge fan of “KF Modified” for cataloging Canadian legal materials since it places books on the shelves first by subject (e.g., “contracts”) and then within that subject by country or region. For a law library that continues to use KF Modified, such as the Great Library at the Law Society of Upper Canada, this allows easy browsing by subject – simply go to the KF800 range for books on contract law.

    “Pure” Library of Congress cataloging for legal materials organizes books first by country, and then within the country, by topic. As such, books dealing with Canadian law would be under “KE”, whereas books on American law would be under “KF”, etc. This is great if you truly want to limit your legal research to the laws of a particular country, but in Canada, it is often advantageous to consult books and other materials from other common law countries.

    KF Modified, however, because it is a customized system does, apparently, require more “original” cataloging by human beings and I think this is likely the primary reason why several Canadian law libraries have reverted from KF Modified to “pure” LC cataloging (an example of troublesome materials to catalogue using customized KF Modified would be CLE materials where there typically is no “CIP” or “Cataloging in Publication” data that you find in most commercially published legal monographs). By using “pure” cataloging, law libraries can purchase standard cataloging records and better automates their cataloging and purchase of labels for their new books instead of having to either create or search for a customized KF cataloging record.

    The nightmare of course for libraries that have converted from KF modified to pure LC is that most of them could not come close to being able to afford to convert their entire existing collection to pure LC. As such, these libraries have messed up shelves, where the patron must look both in the old “KF Modified” range and the new (say) “KE” range. In theory, a new edition of a book could be separated from past editions of a book (e.g., if Waddams contract book was traditionally under KF 801, a new edition might be put into the KE equivalent on the shelf).

    The irony of course, as pointed out by the article from UBC in footnote 3, is that Ann Rae was hired to create the KE class in the 1970s and faced this dilemma more recently at the Bora Laskin. From a library management point of view, the decision to revert to pure cataloging made financial sense; from a patron’s point of view, however, it likely remains confusing and I don’t think the decision was lightly made and was primarily forced by financial considerations.

    It is also frustrating to learn new call numbers after 20 years or so of getting to know the KF Modified call numbers. Plus, pure LC cataloging call numbers for legal materials can get fairly ugly. Anyone know what type of book would be catalogued with the following call number:

    KJC1105 .S95 2005


    Personal Author: Sumner, Ian.

    Title: All’s well that ends registered? : the substantive and private international law aspects of non-marital registered relationships in Europe : a comparison of the laws of Belgium, France, The Netherlands, Switzerland and the United Kingdom / Ian Curry-Sumner.

    Publication info: Antwerp : Intersentia, 2005.

    Physical descrip: xxv, 600 p. ; 24 cm.

    Series title: (European family law series ; 11)

    Subject: Domestic relations–Europe.

    Subject: Conflict of laws–Domestic relations–Europe.

    Bibliography note: Includes bibliographical references (p. 549-585).

  2. Thanks for noting the LC issue Simon. The dropping of series authority records by LC is outright irresponsible. Despite OCLC taking the lead in filling this gap, I would encourage all Slawyers to read more on this issue, and consider signing the petition.

  3. Ted: Thanks so much for rising to Simon’s challenge of an explanation! I knew parts of the story but not the full reason for the decision.