Cataloging and Classification/Cutter Numbers

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Libraries often arrange certain books alphabetically by author, title, or subject. In an alphabetically arranged Biography section, for instance, a patron will be able to find books about Adams at the beginning of the section, Washington at the end, and Jefferson somewhere near the middle. A patron can simply go to the shelf, and get the life one wants, without having to consult a catalog first. Moreover, one will find all the lives of Washington standing side by side, which will often not happen on any other plan. In Fiction sections, such an arrangement (typically by author's last name) is almost a necessity.

However, these books will all need spine labels to show this information. The titles listed on the spine will not do, because they often do not contain the word by which the book should be arranged, and when they do, the shelver cannot always see at a glance which of several words is the one to shelve by. Moreover, we want each call number to be unique to a particular item, to facilitate shelving and identifying the volume.

To meet these goals, Charles Amni Cutter developed a system of abbreviations that allow catalogers to file books alphabetically without taking up much space on a spine label.[1]

Constructing a cutter number

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  1. Choose the appropriate access point that you would like to alphabetize. This is often the author's name, but could also be a biographee's name, a title, a geographic or topic subject term, or some other access point.
  2. Check to see if a cutter number has already been established for this access point in the section.
  3. If using LC Classification, select the appropriate Cutter table. Geographic names have a unique Cutter table; the standard cutter table is appropriate for all other terms.
  4. Use the first letter of the access point as the first letter of your Cutter number. For example, if your access point is "Turing, Alan Mathison, 1912-1954", the first letter of your Cutter number will be T.
  5. Consult the appropriate cutter tables to determine subsequent characters. For example,
  6. Cutter numbers can theoretically be made as long as the access point itself. Libraries typically establish a policy of how many characters they would like in a Cutter number.
  7. After determining a preliminary cutter number, the cataloger must search the catalog to find the cutter numbers of other volumes in the area. If there is another access point in the section represented by the same cutter number, the cataloger must adjust the new cutter number by adding more digits to the end. For example, a cataloger may create the Cutter number "M45" to represent the access point "Melroy, Pamela Anne, 1961- ". However, that same section of the catalog uses the same Cutter number to represent the access point "Melvin, Leland Devon". To differentiate the two access points, the cataloger extends the new cutter by one digit, to create "M457" as the final Cutter number.

Helpful cutter tools

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  1. Note: this introduction is paraphrased from Cutter, C. A. 1837-1903. (1906). Explanation of the alphabetic-order marks (two-figure tables). Northampton, Mass.: Herald Job Print.