As promised in my first blog, here is an introduction to the ongoing reclassification project here at the English Faculty Library!
So, a little historical context: in 1914, when Oxford established a dedicated library for the study of English, the first librarian (Percy Simpson, whose adventures you can read about here) created an in-house classification system. Books were categorised by time period, and each author was given a unique number within those sections. For example, books by or about Jane Austen began ‘M13’ – ‘M’ indicates 1790-1830, and ’13’ was the number allotted to Austen. The system had two main strengths: shelfmarks were short and easy to remember, and the time periods were conveniently divided so that materials for a particular paper would be kept close together, making it easy for readers to browse related material.
Short, memorable in-house shelfmarks
This system lasted for almost a century, surviving two major location moves for the library – from the current site of the Weston Library on Broad Street, to the loft of Examination Schools, and then to the current purpose-built site in the St. Cross building. However, several problems emerged over time:
- It became unwieldy to manage an in-house classification system, particularly with the Bodleian Libraries’ move towards centralising acquisitions.
- There is a long-term proposal to merge the Humanities libraries in a single site at the Radcliffe Observatory Quarter, so it makes more sense that we all use the same system.
- The principle of allotting each author their own number worked well at first, but as our collection became larger, some of the more recent periods began to fill up. Because of this, new authors were being given longer and more complicated classifications, which started to undermine the benefit of the system’s simplicity.
- The undergraduate English degree changed. In the last hundred years, the degree syllabus has been revised a number of times, and the original divisions no longer map onto the way the degree is split up.
As a result of these factors, it was decided ten years ago that the English Faculty Library would switch to Library of Congress Classification (LCC), which is an internationally recognised system developed by the Library of Congress, in Washington, D.C.
Longer, but more informative, LCC shelfmarks
Since then, every new book we have acquired has been given an LCC shelfmark, and there is a long-term project to reclassify our existing stock. This involves printing out new labels for each book and editing each item’s electronic bibliographic record – as we go through, we assess each item, repair or replace damaged books, and fill in any gaps in our collection. Over the summer, my colleagues reclassified over 2000 books from the ‘S’ section, which contained post-colonial literature. Since then, we have moved on to ‘R’ (American literature), and significant progress is being made to process all 6000 items.
When we began reclassifying, we limited ourselves to vacations, as shifting the sequences requires a lot of (potentially-disruptive) book moves. Plus, there was a major building project, completed in 2016, which meant that reclassification had to be put on hold for a couple of years. However, now we are back up and running, we’ve decided to continue some reclassification throughout term and so far have had no complaints from readers.
Despite this, there is still a long way to go! As I write, just over half of our books still need to be reclassified, so it will be a few years until our entire collection is LCC. Helping (a bit) with the project has been instructive in the kind of varied behind-the-scenes work involved in collection management. It has been interesting to see the ways in which a project like this presents an opportunity to maintain and develop our collections, creating the best possible resource for our patrons.