Library of Congress and Its Treatment of the Environment

by Moya K. Mason


When looking at the merits of any classification scheme, it is important to understand the underlying reasons for its creation. Melvil Dewey developed his system to allow the 'masses' accessibility to the universe of knowledge, believing that if libraries were easier to use, they would play a greater role in the growth of education. The same was true for James Duff Brown (1864-1914), the creator of Subject Classification. He advocated that good organization and stack access would transform the British Public Library system into an institution which could support the educational needs of more frequent users (Wynar 1985,439). No longer employed, but much heralded, Brown's system was an important chapter in the history of libraries and a stepping stone for future schemes (Wynar 1985,439).

In comparison, the Library of Congress Classification scheme was created for a specific library and not intended for widespread use. Considerations of universal acceptance and worldwide approval were not issues for the librarians and cataloguers at the Library of Congress, since they saw LC as an in-house system. Does this mean that a logical, comprehensive, and contemporary system for classification should not be expected? This essay will look at how LC was developed within the context of an overview of its structure, and will endeavour to uncover some of its merits and weaknesses in respect to its treatment of the Environment. In addition, some comparisons to the Dewey Decimal Classification System's handling of the subject area will be an inevitable and necessary component. To begin, when was LC developed and what was its initial purpose?

The Early Years of the Library of Congress and an Overview of its Classification Scheme

The Library of Congress was established in 1800 and rebuilt after the War of 1812 using Thomas Jefferson's personal library, which he had sold to Congress. Along with the seven thousand volumes came a classification method that Jefferson had personally designed using forty-four classes (Wynar 1985,403). Many of these books were lost in a later fire, but the classifying scheme had a longer life and continued to be used, albeit with extensive modifications, until the end of the nineteenth century (Wynar 1985,403).

By 1899, a new building was made available for the growing collection and Dr. Herbert Putnam was in charge. He believed that a major reorganization was needed in the system that the Library of Congress was using to catalogue its books and other materials. The staff gained great insight by analyzing the Dewey Decimal Classification (DDC) system, Cutter's Expansive Classification, and Otto Hartwig's German Halle Schema, but as Wynar says, "... their debt, especially to Cutter, is implicit in the basic structure of their system" (Wynar 1985,403). For instance, Class Z is very similar to a main class in Expansive Classification, as is the overall notation of main classes in LC (Wynar 1985,403). Collectively, the cataloguers came up with the Library of Congress Classification scheme, which divides universal knowledge into twenty-one large classes, identified by capital letters, and sub-classes represented by letter combinations, with further divisions specified by numbers. Differing from Dewey, Putnam and his Chief Cataloguer, Charles Martel, chose to use subject specialists to compile each different schedule, and then published the compilations over the next forty years on an individual basis (Wynar 1985,415). They also gave the subject specialists a great deal of discretionary power in arranging and building their divisions as they saw fit.

Each class is presented in a hierarchical structure, with general topics coming before more particular sub-topics, but there were no hard and fast rules for distinguishing such things as time periods (Wynar 1985,415). The only definite features were what came to be known as Martel's Seven Points of Internal Format, which could be used at any appropriate context within the schedules (Wynar 1985,419). They are similar to DDC's Table of Standard Sub Divisions, and range from general form divisions, and theory and philosophy, to special topics.

One of the ways that LC allows for expansion and has the ability to create complete call numbers that are unique, is by using the method first developed by Charles Ammi Cutter. These numeric combinations can represent topical, geographic, personal, or corporate names (Wynar 1985,422), and by using intercalation, there is a ready supply of numbers to maintain an alphabetical order. In this way, the classification system can fulfil its original mandate, which is to catalogue and maintain the continually growing collection of documents and publications that the United States sees as a requirement for the proper governing of a nation. How does it fulfil the needs of an ordinary user looking for information on the Environment?

The Environment and LC

In researching the treatment of any subject area in LC, it is important to remember that the individual schedules are still being compiled by autonomous groups of experts. They are not necessarily privy to the contents of other classes, and therein lies part of the problem for a user. For instance, when subject specialists are developing Class Q they may not be aware of the contents of Class T or Class G, and diligently include any topic which they deem to fall under their class division. The subject of the Environment is very scattered in LC, with major sections having no proximity to each other. The core areas are primarily found in Class G (GE, GF), Class H (HC, HV), Class K, Class Q, Class S, and Class T. The Environment in LC certainly has less cohesion than the arrangement it has in the DDC.

Class G has two sub-classes which cover a wide range of environmental material. In GE (Environmental Sciences) you will find Environmental literature, Environmental education and research, and Environmental degradation (by region or country), which has not yet been fully developed or published. Included in GF are topics covered under Human Ecology such as Hazardous aspects of the Environment and more focused works on our adaptation to specific environments. Class H covers Natural Resources and the economic considerations of the Green Movement.

Class K is an extremely comprehensive overview of law in general, and of the laws of a small number of countries. Within this schedule, all important aspects of Environmental Law can be catalogued. This is a very fundamental part of any research into the Environment, and an area where public concern has been growing over the last twenty years. Despite the fact that Environmental Law lies in between Immunization and Medical legislation in Class K, the topic is given good parameters throughout the schedule, with room for specific areas of concern, such as low level flying.

As is true of other classes, Class P contains topics which had not occurred to Dewey at all. In PS, there is American Environmental literature, including literary history and prose. Environmental scenography, Environmental theater, and Environmental protection (Journalism) fall under PN, and can encompass quite novel and up to date works. Environment's Effect on plants and animals, Environmental geology, and the extremely controversial subject of Environmental radioactivity are in Class Q: Science, along with the broad area of Ecology. Class S contains the important issue of Conservation of Natural Resources.

Class T (The Technology Class) has critical topics such as Environmental aspects of hazardous substance disposal and radioactive waste disposal, Environmental impact analysis and statements, Environmental pollution, and Environmental Protection. LC's treatment does not stop there. In some form or another, dimensions of the environment or the environmental movement are seen in at least five other major divisions of the classification scheme. What can be concluded by this overview?


Classification schemes should be logical, comprehensive, and contemporary, but it is difficult to consistently achieve all three, especially when the date of development is considered. For the subject of Environment, LC manages two out of the three. The field is covered in a comprehensive and in depth manner, keeping to contemporary views and language, but the scattering of it throughout the classes allows no logical cohesion and makes successful shelf browsing impossible.

Since the humble beginnings of DDC and LC, both have undergone extensive revisions, but LC is updated on a daily basis, making current points of view and the latest vocabulary a possibility for every subject. This may also explain, in part, why notes are not as important as they are in the DDC. Instead of trying to make provisions for the next seven or more years as DDC does by using extensive notes, LC simply adds additional sub-classes as needed for the growing pool of knowledge. Dewey could not have envisioned that New Age Environmental Music would need consideration, or that provisions might have to be made for American environmental art and architecture. How could he? One thing is for sure: if the DDC were entirely updated as often as LC is, it would become much more expensive and lose its customer base.

LC is highly enumerative, very flexible and pragmatic, and consequently, quite costly. Wynar states that LC "is particularly useful for large university and research collections because of its hospitality and inherent flexibility" (Wynar 1985,404). That may be true, but it seems equally challenging for cataloguers and users to overcome its loose style and the widespread scatter of some fields. With all its strengths and weaknesses, the Library of Congress Classification system is the only practical choice for many institutions, as it continues to serve the United States government.

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Wynar, B.S. 1985. Introduction to Cataloguing and Classification. 7th ed. Littleton, Co.: Libraries Unlimited, Inc.

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