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Cracking the spine on Hennepin County Library’s many hidden charms

Hand-lettering, dazzling endpapers, upper- and lowercase lettering all reveal a rich history.

MinnPost illustration by Andy Sturdevant
There still are remnants of the old Minneapolis system for classifying books to be seen at the Minneapolis Central Library, where it was born.

If you know anything about libraries, you likely know at least a little bit about the Dewey Decimal and Library of Congress systems of classification. These are the systems for classifying books by subject, making it easy for a library patron to locate books quickly and easily, and identify related books on the subject that might be nearby. My own book, for purposes of clarification (and some light buzz marketing), is entered in the Hennepin County Library’s catalog under PS3619, which means in the eyes of the Library of Congress, I am located in Class P: Language and Literature, subclass PS (American literature), in the section for individual authors, and specifically, “Authors 2001- .” That means my book is located on the shelf near Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, which strikes me as funny, humbling, and somewhat out-of-scale, but that’s how the system works.

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Of course, these systems of organization are relatively new, only developed a little over a century ago. There were alternate, rival schemes for organizing the sum of human knowledge that didn’t catch on, for a variety of reasons. One such system was the Minneapolis, or Putnam, classification. There still are remnants of the old Minneapolis system to be seen at the Minneapolis Central Library, where it was born.

The bulk of books still classified using the Minneapolis system are located in a room on the fourth floor of the library, generally not accessible to the public except by request. The one big exception is the sheet music, which is still classified using this system and out on the third floor, ready to be checked out by anyone. But other than the sheet music, the old system mostly catalogs foreign language titles, biographies, anthologies, and complete works, acquired before the 1960s or — more likely — much, much earlier.

This fourth floor collection is an odd little vacuum that exists out of time. The books are accessible if you ask for them, but they’re also somewhat invisible. Not only have many of these books not had their classification updated, but most haven’t even been catalogued.

So they exist out of time. As physical objects, they’re fascinating, a glimpse at what many of the titles in the library looked like a century ago, and at aspects of the librarian and bookbinder’s art as it was practiced that time.

Herbert Putnam

The Minneapolis system was developed by one Herbert Putnam, remembered today for his four-decade-long career as Librarian of Congress from 1899 to 1939. In that role, he helped to develop the Library of Congress classification system, still used by libraries all over the world, including the Hennepin County Library. Before that, however, he was a 27-year-old graduate of Harvard and Columbia, living on the East Coast and looking for a job. He had some friends who’d emigrated west and made it in Minneapolis, and they invited him out to assume the librarian position at the Minneapolis Athenaeum, precursor to the public library. He accepted it, and for about seven years, he lived in Minneapolis, running the Athenaeum and, later, the Minneapolis Public Library. When his mother-in-law fell ill in the early 1890s, he moved back east, and later became the head of the Boston Public Library, then the Library of Congress.

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.

The widely used Dewey Decimal System had been developed in 1867, but wouldn’t be widely adopted until much later. Many libraries in the 19th century were organized according to Thomas Jefferson’s system, which placed like books into broad, flexible categories. This was a good start, but if books were going to be accessible to the public, they needed to be organized in such a way that allowed the reader to find books by author, title, or subject. If the reader was interested in a specific subject, he or she needed a way to search an index that broke most of human knowledge into catalogs that were fairly easy to identify.

In order to open up the collection for the library patron, Putnam sat down in 1889 and demonstrated the sort of Minneapolis-by-way-of-New-England resourcefulness that has long been the hallmark of the Mill City. He wrote out, in longhand, a scheme for classifying any published book by subject. The scheme was largely based on a similar system, developed back east by a librarian named John Edmands earlier in the century for the Philadelphia Mercantile Library. It is not, Putnam wrote, “a precise nor scientific division, but a grouping of the library into primary and secondary classes, which, without being so general as to become unwieldy, should not be so specific as to necessitate a book being placed on two different shelves at the same time.” Over a century later, David Klaiber, a Hennepin County librarian, sat at his desk and showed me the official bound classification system, contained within a very slim volume. Its advantage, he explained, was its simplicity. “It all fits into these 29 pages.”

book spines
MinnPost photo by Andy Sturdevant
“Ag” was used for collected works of individual authors, with the author’s name notated in a lowercase letter elsewhere in the call number.

And so Putnam’s classification system broke down human knowledge into 23 alphabetical classes (designated with a capital letter), and correspondent lowercase lettered subdivisions. “A” for general and miscellaneous works, “Ag” for collected works of individual authors, the author’s name notated in a lowercase letter elsewhere in the call number. “E” for History of Europe, with “Ef” for France, “Eg” for Germany; Austria; Holland; the Netherlands, etc. These designations were also organized in a “zig zag” fashion — it was broken up over two lines, where you’d first read the top line (“Ag” for individual authors), then zag down to the middle of the second line (where you might find an “m” for Guy de Maupassant, for example), then zig left on the second line to get the rest of the number, indicating a “shelf address,” where the book would be physically located in order on the shelf.

You follow? It’s a little complicated at first blush. But it worked, for a little while, at least. It was a way for patrons to easily find books on the shelf, and in the card catalog, and make the connection between those two places.

The Minneapolis Public Library quietly switched over to the Dewey Decimal System in the 1910s (an internal newsletter from that time notes that “Miss Countryman decided right before her departure that hereafter the Decimal classification should be used in the reclassifying and recataloging of the library”). In 1969, they took the unusual step of converting the library’s holdings to the Library of Congress, the classification system Putnam helped develop after his time in Minneapolis, based in part on the system he’d adapted for use here.

foreign language books
MinnPost photo by Andy Sturdevant
Most of the books on the fourth floor — foreign language titles, biographies, complete works — are duplicates, or outdated, or both.

But the books still classified in the old Putnam system up on the fourth floor won’t likely be updated anytime soon. Some have been reclassified, but most in those categories — foreign language titles, biographies, complete works — are duplicates, or outdated, or both. So they remain in original bindings, with the librarian’s original catalog numbers written delicately on the spines. But in not being updated, there’s another noteworthy and charming aspect to them, related to those two things.

There was a set of handwriting standards that librarians were expected to conform to uniformly. This style guide outlines how a lowercase “g” is made (“always loop stem”), or which varieties of “i,” “s” or “S” you “never” use. And so all the Putnam system titles have their call numbers made out in this way on their spines in white paint. This artistry was, for the 19th and early 20th century librarian, as important as being able to restack books on the shelves. It’s like the lettering you find on architectural renderings — uniform and precise, rooted in a specific method learned and practiced over the course of years, but imbued with a warm, personal touch on the part of the anonymous writer. 

Some of these books, too, have phenomenal bindings. The endpapers in particular can be dazzling. In a German language volume pulled off the shelf at random, there’s an almost psychedelic marbling made of pink, brown, tan and blue oil-based dyes, swirling and topped off with a smattering of white dots. Many of these books look, as I noted, just as they must have 100 years ago — the original leather and vellum bindings, with foil-printed covers. You can see, in these endpapers, the surgical methods undertaken by librarians of that period to preserve and beautify these titles. There are a few present-day printouts of reminders to the librarians taped to some of the shelves, explaining some of the vagaries of the strange, mostly forgotten Putnam system — let us admire here the considerable talents of the contemporary librarian, who must not only know how to troubleshoot YouTube videos on a shared PC, but also how to re-shelve a Swedish language book on agriculture using a classification system that has not been widely used for nearly a century.

german book
MinnPost photo by Andy Sturdevant
In a German language volume pulled off the shelf at random, there’s an almost psychedelic marbling made of pink, brown, tan and blue oil-based dyes, swirling and topped off with a smattering of white dots.

By a quirk of history, the sheet music was catalogued using the Minneapolis method, and it still is. Putnam didn’t originally make a designation for music, but the library’s collection of sheet music became, over time, such a unique part of its holdings — many of the pieces of music are only found here, and then in a few major collections — that it was added to the system later to accommodate them. Many were not individually catalogued, and for now, it’s easiest and most economical to keep the sheet music organized in this broad, sequential way. If you’re one of the hundreds of patrons that uses the library’s considerable holdings of sheet music and you’re wondering how the mysterious “Zbz” designation —not Dewey Decimal, not Library of Congress — fits into the larger scheme of things, now you know. Like those beautifully endpapered 19th century German-language collections of Goethe on the fourth floor, they’re a holdover from a time when Minneapolis’s top librarian was drawing up a method for organizing the sum of human knowledge into a simple set of zig-zagging alphabetical categories.

Many thanks to David Klaiber and Jim Proctor at the Hennepin County Library, and Jessica Shaykett at the American Craft Council library, for their assistance and insight.