February 6, 2014

A library classification system that’s older than the Dewey Decimal and Library of Congress models


Herbert Putnam developed rules for handwritten letters in the Minneapolis classification system.

Herbert Putnam developed rules for handwritten letters in the Minneapolis classification system.

You might be a pro with Dewey Decimal and Library of Congress cataloging systems, but have you heard of the Minneapolis, or Putnam, classification of books? According to the MinnPost, you can still find hints of this older system at the Minneapolis Central Library. On the fourth floor of the library, the Minneapolis system is still in use for sheet music, “foreign language titles, biographies, anthologies, and complete works, acquired before the 1960s or—more likely—much, much earlier,” although the books aren’t available to the public and can only be checked out upon request.

The system was created by a librarian named Herbert Putnam, who worked at the Library of Congress from 1899-1939 and is known for helping to create the Library of Congress classification system too. But before that, he worked in the Minneapolis Athenaeum, which later became the Minneapolis Public Library, after graduating from college. He eventually moved back East to work at the Boston Public Library before starting his four decade tenure at the Library of Congress.

What is significant about the Minneapolis system? Putnam’s goal was to allow better and easier access to books for patrons:

Libraries in the late 19th century were, like libraries in the early 21st century, undergoing a period of change. Generally, through the 1900s, you needed a “shelf permit” to even see a book; these were limited primarily to people doing research projects. Putnam’s interest was in democratizing access to his library’s titles. “I cannot believe there is a librarian who has felt as a reader and would not himself be urgent for freedom of access,” he wrote in 1891. “The problem is one of means.” During his time in Minneapolis, he instituted policies that made it possible for the public to freely browse most books in the library’s collection.

He also developed a handwritten classification to help people find the books by subject and category. Two letters were written on the spine of a book in white paint—the first letter was uppercase and signified a more general category, while the second lowercase letter represented a subcategory. Putnam outlined a handwriting guide for each letter, so that the loops and stamps of the letterforms were uniform.

Eventually, most of the books in the Minneapolis Public Library—except for the fourth floor—switched over to the new Library of Congress method that was based on Putnam’s first system. But a detailed description of the categories in this forgotten classification system can be seen on the University of California Digital Library website here.


Claire Kelley is a the former Director of Library and Academic Marketing.