Cutting the Jargon: What’s a Cutter?

Shelfie of the Penzler ARC on an iPad and the first edition's spine

On our Instagram today we posted a little about a deaccessioned library copy of the murder mystery The Widening Stain, referencing how it was shelved and why it was classified as it was. This blog post unpacks some of the cataloguing jargon (“ALA Rules”; “Cutter”; “Book Number”) and points you towards sources for further information.

This post is written for beginning cataloguers, or those who want to know more about Library of Congress Classification and the old A.L.A. Rules.

The Widening Stain

I came across The Widening Stain as an Advance Reader Copy (ARC) on offer through NetGalley. It’s about to be republished by Penzler, and I requested and downloaded a copy to review because of my interest in crime fiction set in libraries. Having decided to feature it on the Bodies in the Library Instagram, I tracked down a first edition (third printing), because you cannot (legally or morally) quote from ARCs, which are essentially pre-publication proofs.

The novel was originally published in 1942 by Alfred A. Knopf as by W. Bolingbroke Johnson. This turned out to be the pseudonym of Cornell French professor Morris Bishop. His only venture into the genre, it displays his (in)famous love of puns, his love of the library at Cornell, and his keen observation of how academic society worked in the 1940s. It’s a good, fun read, especially for librarians, and particularly for cataloguers, since the protagonist, Gilda Gorham, is the supervisor of the library’s catalogue room.

Penzler is astute to republish the title now – second-hand copies are quite expensive, and it will be great to see it in their American Mystery Classics list. My copy is ex library, clearly stamped “WITHDRAWN IOWA STATE UNIVERSITY.” There is clear evidence of its life in the library – an envelope from the Browne Card System at Iowa on the inside back cover; a cutting of the blurb from the dust jacket (which would have been discarded, as was common practice in libraries in the 1940s); an accessions label on the inside front cover; and a classification label on the spine.

Filing in the 1940s – the ALA Rules

From the accessions label we can clearly see that the book was added to the stock of the then Iowa State College of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts Library in the 1940s. In neat handwriting in pencil on the title page the cataloguer has written “pseud. of Morris Bishop” in square brackets. Cataloguers make these marks to show the correspondence between the catalogue entry and the book. This book was catalogued and filed under “Bishop.”

In the 1940s, the current cataloguing standard usually used by American academic libraries was the A.L.A. Catalog Rules: Author and Title Entry.

Here’s the rule that was at work:

56. Pseudonymous authors. (A.L.A.1908.38)

Enter an author who uses a pseudonym under real name if known. Refer from pseudonym.

The abbreviation pseud. is italicized and in brackets is inserted after the pseudonym in the bod of the title [in the catalogue entry]. (A.L.A. Catalog Rules ,Preliminary American Second Edition (Chicago: ALA, 1941), p. 59).

As you can see from the image at the top of this post, the spine also says “Bishop,” not “Johnson” – one of the reasons I picked up my copy at an affordable price is it has been rebound by the library.

Shelving in the 1940s – Library of Congress Classification

Library of Congress Classification (LCC) was introduced from 1897 onwards and grew steadily to become one of the most widely used schemes in general academic libraries worldwide. For those of you brand new to Classification, we can think of it at its most simple level as a way to organise our shelves so that books on the same topic are together. At its most complex level, we can see it as an intellectual effort to systematically codify all the world’s knowledge.

A key point to remember about LCC is that it was devised by the Library of Congress, for the Library of Congress, based on its holdings and the retrieval needs of its library users. Equally important is this note by the Library of Congress itself:

The original organization of the classification was according to broad disciplines as seen a century ago. Since interdisciplinary topics were difficult to accommodate in this system, many arbitrary choices have been made over the years (Library of Congress, Historical Notes, p. 1).

Most libraries who use LCC subscribe to the electronic product ClassWeb, but the Library of Congress also publishes free schedules in pdf, which are helpful if you want to get an overview of the structure of a particular section.

There are two numbers on my copy of The Widening Stain: the original one on the accessions label, and a later one on the spine. Let’s look at the first of these.

Helpfully, the original cataloguer has divided the “Book No.” on the label into its constituent parts. The first of these, PZ3, is from the main LCC schedule. We can use the file for PR, PS and PZ Text to find PZ3.

As we scroll down eventually (on p. 343 of the February 2020 file that is current at time of writing) we can see that PZ is designated “FICTION AND JUVENILE BELLES LETTRES.” We can see, then “Fiction in English” and the description “A special collection of standard and current fiction including English translations of foreign authors.” This is followed by a note about what the Library of Congress does. Such notes are usually present when the LC is aware that historically something different was done and that therefore there are some libraries who still do things differently.

If we look specifically for “3” we can see that it is in brackets: “(3)”. This is the convention used to show that this is a number that has fallen out of use. The LC helpfully keeps these numbers so we can understand what they were. Some libraries cannot afford to go back and reclassify all their books, so you might find some at the old number and some at the new one for a while.

In any case, we can see that when in use 3 was “Individual authors, 1750 through 1950.” So the first part of our number (called the “call number” in books about LCC), PZ3, means that this is a book shelved with other fiction in English published between 1750 and 1950, under the name of the author.

Cutter Numbers

Cutter numbers are a major feature of LCC. They can be hard to wrap your head around as they are part of a general classification scheme (LCC) but end up being quite localised. The brain-child of Charles Ammi Cutter, they are described by the Library of Congress as “an easy-to-use method for arranging books by author within a given class” (Library of Congress, Cutter Numbers, p. 1). In a future Beginnings article, we’ll look at them in more depth, but for now it is enough to know that the second part of the number we can see on the accessions label is one that refers specifically to Morris Bishop. If you are really keen, you can work your way through the instructions in G063 for Cutters.

You may work in a library that does not use Cutters. Given that what the Cutter is doing (in this part of the LCC at any rate) is allowing us to file by author surname, some libraries simply use the call number (in this case PZ3) and then shelve by author surname.

What About The Spine Label?

We’ve already seen that PZ3 has ceased to be used, generally. At some point in its history, my copy of The Widening Stain has been reclassified, from PZ to PS. If you like, have a look in the schedule for PR, PS and PZ Text and see if you can work out what its new call number means.

Just focus on the first two lines of the label for now:



On Friday afternoon (22 May), I’ll check back in here and post a link to a blog post that shares the answer and discusses what the second part of the number on the spine is doing.


There’s a lot we can learn from ex library books and their classification. I’m really grateful to Iowa State University Library for maintaining their provenance marks (accessions and spine labels) so beautifully on this novel.

Disclaimer: links to sites outside do not indicate endorsement or a business relationship with other sites – they are simply pages that seem informative for readers.

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