Sunday 14 March 2021

Cutter Sees the Future

 Born on this day in 1837 was one of America's greatest librarians, Charles Ammi Cutter. He it was who created the first public card catalogue in America (at Harvard College), revolutionised the cataloguing of the Boston Athenaeum, and devised the pioneering Cutter Expansive Classification. His Wikipedia entry makes wonderfully restful reading. 
  The Cutter Expansive Classification ('an avant-garde and divergent system') had the great advantage that, unlike 'Melvil' Dewey's ultimately triumphant system, it could be easily adapted to the needs of different kinds and sizes of library. The basic version, for very small libraries, had just seven categories for non-fiction subjects, one of which (A) was for reference books. History was lumped together with Geography and Travels in F, whereas Social Sciences (H) and Biography (E) had each their own exclusive category. More problematically, Natural Sciences and Arts were crammed into one category (L) – that was surely never going to work. Even in more expanded versions of the classification, Science and Arts remain locked in an unlikely embrace... Wake up at the back there!
  But here's a funny thing: in 1883 Cutter wrote a piece for the Library Journal in which he envisaged the Buffalo Public Library 100 years on, in 1983. 'The desks ,' he writes, 'had a little keyboard at each, connected by a wire. The reader had only to find the mark of his book in the catalog, touch a few lettered or numbered keys, and [the book] appeared after an astonishingly short interval.' Uncanny, eh?

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