Julia Pettee

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Julia Pettee (1872-1967) was chief cataloger in the Library of Union Theological Seminary from 1909-1939, during which time she is credited with developing and implementing a unique classification system for theological works, which at one time was adopted by over fifty theological libraries in the United States.


Pettee began her career in librarianship as a cataloger at Vassar, which she attended from 1895 to 1899. In about 1905, she was invited to visit the Rochester Theological Seminary Library and participate in the reorganization of its 50,000 volume collection and the implementation of a relative classification scheme (whereby the book, not the shelf, was classified). In 1909 she was recruited to begin a similar project with Union’s 165,000 volumes. At the time, most special libraries and many general collections were still organized by a fixed location system.


When I arrived, this was the practice at Union Seminary: The cataloger made one author card and placed it in the book.... The librarian...with the book in his hand, would look around for the place where similar books were placed. When he found it, he would put the number of the stack and section in the book and on the card. Then he placed the book on the shelf and the card was returned to be filed in the catalog." (Pettee, Untitled address, 35.)


This fixed shelf organization of a typical American theological library and any rudimentary subject catalogs in existence at the time would have been based on topics in a theological encyclopedia such as An Introduction to Theology: Its Principles, Its Branches, Its Results and Its Literature, popularly known as Cave’s Encyclopedia after its author, Alfred Cave. At Rochester, Pettee had assumed responsibility for the theological materials, while simultaneously the library’s non-theological works were being classified according to the recently introduced but increasingly popular Dewey Decimal Classification. This arrangement ultimately proved unsatisfactory to Pettee, who resolved upon her arrival at Union to implement a single system of classification suitable for the entire collection.


Pettee considered the Dewey system unworkable for a specialized collection. In order to introduce a sufficient number of distinct classes for the wide range of specialties within the religion class, Dewey numbers would have to he extended to several digits beyond the decimal, resulting in a number of practical problems, not the least of which is that the long numbers were difficult to fit on the spines of most books. An alphabetical system such as Cutter (and the not-yet-introduced Library of Congress Classification) allows for much greater subject differentiation within classes. Rochester, as noted, had solved the problem by introducing a separate classification system for theological works, but this resulted in practical and philosophical difficultiesl. The nontheological works had been collected by the seminary library precisely because they were thought to be of use to theologians and seminarians, who now had to search separate sections to locate works which might be related to one another practically; for example, general works on education and works on religious education.


Pettee realized that these works would need to be classified together at Union in order to make the collection fulfill its intended usefulness. However, this was not simply a practical matter for Pettee but a central philosophical point. She believed strongly that the organization scheme of materials in a library reflects a worldview, a particular understanding of the order and nature of knowledge. The Union Seminary library contained many works which were not religious or “theological,” such as those on political history, education or psychology. They were collected in the theological library, however, due to their perceived usefulness in theological scholarship. In her words,

whether or not we can logically consider theology a separate department of knowledge coordinate with other sciences depend upon our fundamental theological conceptions... If we regard the universe as divided into two sharply contrasted parts, a world of nature subject to law and apprehended through reason, and a supernatural world which is above law and disclosed through revelation, theology becomes the science of the supernatural world as distinct from the sciences of the world of nature. If, however.., we know but one world where both the material and the spiritual are interrelated as parts of a uniform and consistent whole, the sharp division between the natural and the supernatural cannot be drawn.(“A Classification for a Theological Library,” 612.)


Pettee’s work in classifying theological libraries made her a pioneer in the field of subject authority work in general. In her text, Subject Headings: the History and Theory of the Alphabetical SubjectApproach to Books, she outlines the methodology by which she untangled an admittedly confused array of topics. The broad categories must first be thoroughly and clearly delineated, carefully avoiding the potential pitfall of confused, overlapping and minute subdivisions. The outline is constructed like a pyramid, always beginning with the most general categories and always taking care that the divisions between categories are theoretically (if not practically) well-defined. “I cannot make it too emphatic,” wrote Pettee, “that in our analysis of our subject matter, we must draw clean, straight, rigid lines...(“The Philosophy of the Maker of a Special Classification, 257.) The role of the cataloger, then, is to choose the most appropriate of the pre-defined subject headings to assign to each title as it is placed in the catalog.


Pettee recognized that a theoretical classification was one thing and an actual library collection another. While she insisted that the classification must be worked out as a philosophical unity, she realized that in practice the utility of the arrangement for the scholars who use it must also be considered. A classification of knowledge is not “a set of vague speculative ideas up in the air that philosophers wrangle about” but rather just the way people sort their everyday working ideas for use.”(“Philosophy,” 255.) Also, she recognized as a fundamental fact of bibliographic classification that “there is nothing static about a classification scheme. The way we sort our ideas is constantly changing, so that it is not very strange that there should be found in the stacks of some fifty years ago an arrangement that would seem odd to us today.”(Untitled address, 35.) The reason is that the boundaries of the deposit of human knowledge are ever expanding:


It is the vast fringe of knowledge in the process of organization that troubles classifiers. This highly interesting fringe of experimentation and unproved theses is largely the subject matter our current books. It is these books dealing with data which has not yet been thoroughly organized which confuses our older schemes and makes repeated demand for a newer and more modern scheme into which this new data will fit. (“The Organization of Knowledge and Its Bearing upon Library Classification,” nd.. Archives, The Burke Library, Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York; quoted in Spoor, 88-89.)


Pettee’s classification was widely used by American theological libraries for several decades before finally being abandoned in favor of the Library of Congress classification which was not yet in place when she began her work.


[edit] Bibliography

Eisenhart, Ruth. “Report of the Committee on Cataloging and Classification: New Subject Headings in Theology.” American Theological Library Association Summary of Proceedings 11(1957): 40-45.

_______________. “The Classification of Theological Books.” Library Trends 9, no. 2 (October 1960) : 257-69. Gorman, G. E. “The Classification of Theological Literature: a Commentary and Annotated Bibliography.” International Library Review 17, no. 2 (April 1985): 203-31.

Gresham, John L. Jr. “The Place of Religion in the Universe of Knowledge According to Various Systems of Bibliographic Classification.” Journal of Religious and Theological Information 2, no. 1 (1994): 29-43.

Markley, Lucy W. “Cataloging and Classification.” Conference of Theological Librarians Summary of Proceedings (1947) : 35-3 8.

Markley, Lucy W., presenter. “Report of Round Table on Union Theological Seminary Classification.” American Theological Library Association Summary of Proceedings 3 (1949) : 48-50. See also Summary o[Proceedings 4 (1950): 33- 355(l95l):28;8(1954):20;9(l955).3342;lo(1956).4243;l7(1963). 136-140; 18(1964): 110-113.

Morris, Raymond P. “Julia Pettee, 1872-1967.” American Theological Library Association Summary of Proceedings 21(1967): 7 1-72.

Pettee, Julia. “A Classification for a Theological Library.” Library Journal 36, no. 12 (December 1911) :611-24.

_________. “Factors in Determining Subject Headings.” Library Journal 54 (1929): 1019-22.

_________. “The Development of Authorship Entry and the Formulation of Authorship Rules as Found in the Anglo-American Code.” Library Quarterly 6, no. 3 (1936) 270-90.

_________. “The Philosophy of the Maker of a Special Classification.” Special Libraries 28, no. 7 (September 1937): 254-59.

_________. Subject Headings: The History and Theory of the Alphabetical Subject Approach to Books. New York: The H. W. Wilson Company, 1946.

_________. Untitled address published as part 1 of “Panel on the Union Classification.” American Theological Library Association Summary of Proceedings 9 (1955) : 33-39.

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