How Charles Cutter spent his winter vacation

Posted on: February 19th, 2017 by JoAnne Burek

In 1858, Charles A. Cutter was a student librarian at the Harvard Divinity School, struggling to keep the four old folio volumes of the manuscript catalog up to date. Then the school acquired a 4,000 volume collection from Professor Frederich Lücke at the University of Göttingen. To continue with the existing manuscript catalog would be impossible.

Cutter and a classmate, Charles Noyes, worked the winter vacation recataloguing the entire collection of 12,000 books. But instead of writing a new manuscript catalog, they took down the book information on slips. As he set out to arrange the slips, Cutter was facing cataloguing principles for the first time. Nevertheless, by the time he graduated in July, the whole collection was complete and integrated—in the catalogue and on the shelves.

Cutter went on to a distinguished career as head librarian at the Boston Aethenaeum Library and eventually as consultant to the United States Bureau of Education. He was driven to helping libraries everywhere bring order out of chaos. In 1880, he introduced a novel system he called the Cutter Expansive Classification, which laid the foundation for the Library of Congress Subject Headings.

His book, “Rules for a Dictionary Catalog” can be viewed here at the University of North Texas Library.

You’ll hear more about Cutter and others when Alan Walker presents “Seven types of specificity: the history of alphabetico-specific indexing” at the conference in Montreal June 2-3.