Fun With Cutters

I’ve always had the utmost esteem for Melvil Dewey—for his professional tendencies, that is, and not for his political views (he ardently approved of segregation and opposed women’s rights)—and the classification system he crafted. How can you not admire a man who began working on a classification system at the age of 23, and started a magazine (Library Journal) and co-founded a professional organization (the American Library Association) at the age of 25? But there is one thing I’ve always hated the guy for: cutter numbers. (If a book’s call number is 833.912 M31, then the cutter number would be “M31.”) To be fair, good ol’ Dewey didn’t come up with this scheme of funky-looking numbers. (It was actually thought up by Charles Cutter, but it seems more fitting to blame it on Dewey, because who’s actually heard of Cutter?)

As a library page, I always looked at the numbers and wondered where they came from; they seemed to make no logical sense, though I later learned that they actually follow a complicated system that most librarians don’t even understand or know about. Fortunately, many public libraries (though few academic ones) are doing away with these cutter numbers, favoring instead the use of the author’s last name and, sometimes, the year the book was published. It’s not as accurate, but at least it’s not confusing. For those who are stuck with searching book stacks full of those irritating cutter numbers, below is a field guide to make them a little less confusing.

In fiction, you might see several books that look something like this:


What does that mean? In this case, the “V” would be the first letter of the author’s last name; the “584” would also refer, in coded fashion, to the author’s name; and the “a,” “c,” and “e” would each refer to the title of the book. The purpose of this sort of cutter is to help a page shelve a book by author in alphabetical order according to the book’s title. Apparently, library pages are too stupid to read the title on the spine, so they need a confusing number to help them sort things out.

Now here comes something really fun. What if there is a book of criticism to accompany that book of fiction? That would look a little something like this:


Why? In this case, “G832” would represent the name of the fiction author whose work is being written about; “Z” would mean it’s a work of criticism (make sure it’s a capital Z or it might get a little embarrassing); and, finally, the “T54” would refer to the last name of the author of the book of criticism. One thing to point out, however: “G832” would actually be a work by John Grisham, which is quite ridiculous, because who writes criticism on that guy? As a sad side note, there are in fact books of criticism about that guy, and some have compared him to Dostoyevsky.

Sometimes you see a number sequence that goes something like this:


It makes logical sense that 168 is a greater number than 17, so why would you shelve 168 first? Because a librarian is always right. To the common man, this looks wrong, but to the librarian, this is right, because a librarian is never wrong. The more proper excuse they’ll give is that cutter numbers are not read as a whole number; instead, they’re read digit by digit. Sound dumb? It is.

I won’t go into how to make your own cutter number, but if you’re interested you can purchase the table here:

And to all you catalogers out there who feel I have insulted you with this simplified version of your sacred cutter system, please, no nasty e-mails.