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Study in Oxford: Library Catalog Systems

Following is a post from GTF alumnus, Dr. James Keating, (Ed.D., 2002).  Dr. Keating has been to Oxford to study many times and in the following piece shares one particular point of interest based on his many experiences there. 

Books catalogued by size at the Christ Church library on Peckwater Quad.

Books catalogued by size at the Christ Church library on Peckwater Quad.

Study at Oxford is exciting for all of the reasons you can easily imagine.  The lectures are inspiring, the environment spectacular, and the friendships you make will last a lifetime.  But there is even more!   When you study at Oxford you will make brand-new discoveries that are wonderfully enthralling.  Sometimes they don’t have anything to do with your field of study, but you learn them anyway and you find them endlessly fascinating.  For example, you might learn something you never knew about libraries.  This is what I learned.

Most of us first heard about the Dewey Decimal System in high school or before.  With this program we could dependably find books in the local library.  The Dewey Decimal System was first introduced in the 19th century and improved and expanded over the decades to allow us to locate books based on numerical designations, which were in turn based on subject matter.  It is familiar and dependable.  Most libraries in the English-speaking world still use Dewey today.

Although it makes sense, there are other cataloging procedures that work perfectly well too.  The Library of Congress system is widely used, for example.    In earlier years the “date of acquisition system” was employed whereby books were arranged on shelves based on the date when they were added to the collection and they were easily found by looking in the card catalog and noting the date.

So…as long as there was some rational basis for the system it could be effective.  Knowing how books were catalogued tells us how libraries were used and helps us better understand the physical reality of stacking books on library shelves.

But in England and Ireland there was a system quite different from any of these.  To us it might seem unusual and even irrational, but it was really quite sensible when you think about it.   This was based on the size of the books.  The idea was that libraries wanted to use all of their shelf space from top to bottom in order to shelve the maximum number of books in the area available.

So they decided to stack larger and heavier books on the bottom shelves and lighter and smaller books on the top.  This made perfect sense.  Think about it.  It would be extremely difficult to shelve or remove ponderous volumes from top shelves while balanced precariously on a rolling ladder…so large texts were put on bottom shelves. On the other hand, very small and easily handled books were put on top shelves where they could be readily and safely accessed.  Books were thereby cataloged according to the “stacks and shelves” where they might be found…and shelved according to their size.

In modern times this might seem a little odd, but hundreds of years ago it was a perfectly rational way to shelve books so they could be found and removed easily.  This system was used at Christ Church College in Oxford (see photo) and elsewhere.  If you study in Oxford this is one of the things you might find a little odd, but wonderfully interesting!  Indeed, the study at Oxford will give opportunities to study, travel, visit important sites, and in so many ways enrich yourself and your understanding of key and important issues.  There is more to learn than any of us even imagine!