Sunday, January 17, 2010

Creating a New Classification System for Art

by Lee-Ann Liles

Imagine this. In front of me is a massive collection of books, nearly 40 shelves filled with 700 art books, and I alone volunteered to tackle the project. It developed into something bigger, more complicated and time-consuming than I could have anticipated. That was me over a year ago.

The Masterworks Museum of Bermuda Art had a collection of art books which desperately needed cataloging, but from the request on the Centre on Philanthropy website, I had gathered it would be a small office-sized collection. The books were shelved in the member’s lounge that filled one wall of the room—yet the size of the collection was not my greatest obstacle. In actuality, my biggest problem was that I was not a librarian and I had little experience in the library science field. Luckily, the sobering effect of this knowledge fostered creativity in me and I was able to get started.

In June 2008, I began to meticulously sift through the stacks of books. I immediately found them an interesting study. The artists in the collection ranged from Ansel Adams to James McNeil Whistler. There were also books on the MET and the Sistine Chapel, as well as books covering art from just about every region and on every artistic movement that ever came about. I began to realize that I had made a wise decision taking on the project.

The Masterworks Museum itself was brand new, only opening to the public in 2008 and I was thrilled to come on board. This was a chance of a lifetime; the perfect opportunity to dabble in a field I had always appreciated. Only, I worried over the arrangement. The members’ lounge was designed to offer in-house reference and reading material and because it would function like the small libraries one would find at internet caf├ęs, coffee houses and on cruise ships.

I spent long periods of time mesmerized by the shelves, sorting them in my mind and many nights I created lists in my sleep. I consulted librarians at the Bermuda National Library as well as an appraisal archivist with a library science background, on the best way to arrange a collection which would not be circulated. With their notes and a creative twist, I came up with a plan, a standard which outlined the collection. I call them the three S’s. In order for the arrangement to work, it most importantly needed to be: Specific, Simple and Searchable.

1. Specific. I had to design the arrangement so that it was specific to art books in particular.

I realized that I could not completely use one classification like the Dewey Decimal Classification (DCC) or the Library of Congress systems, because it would complicate the project. After consulting the Technical Librarian at the Bermuda National Library—which uses the DDC System—I realized that the DDC was great, but I only needed some of the subject areas and numerical codes were not necessary for this collection. For instance, I did not use the subject area “Computer science,” but I did use “Biographies” because there were many books on the artists' lives. Essentially, I used the DDC only for the subject order as demonstrated by the Bermuda National Library.

2. Simple. I had to ensure the arrangement was not too complicated for both Masterworks staff and its members to locate what they needed.
  • Each book was arranged as closely to its subject as possible, though it could be cross-referenced. Books were divided into two categories: Artists and Subjects. They were then labeled with the call number “A” for artist or “S” for subject.
  • Artist books were arranged first in alphabetical order. Then each title under that artist was arranged in an alphabetical sub-grouping. The first three letters of the artist’s surname were used as an identifier in the code, eg. Books on Vermeer would bear the code: A.VER
  • Subject categories were arranged in applicable categories: how-to books, museums & private collections, art movements, Bermuda art books, etc. Subject codes would be identified by the first three letters in the category, eg. American Painting by Marchetti would be coded S.REG (region).

3. Searchable. I had to ensure that each book was accounted for and could be found easily using the finding aid.

A handwritten card was used to keep track of each book and a booklist was compiled. Each book was labeled with its designated call number and placed alphabetical order on the shelf. All in all, the library would not be difficult to peruse and it should serve its purpose well.

While working in two hour increments for roughly three days a week, I have put in over 25 hours with volunteer services. By fall 2009, I am finally rounding the corner to finishing the project. Out of this experience, I have gained great hands-on knowledge on designing a classification system. Plus I have experienced what goes on behind the scenes in the life of a Cataloging Librarian. I could probably tell you a thing or two about art as well.

I am now library assistant at the Bermuda College Library and my ultimate goal is to become a Reference Librarian. It is something that I strive for with mild intimidation, but as Joseph Chilton Pearce once said, "To live a creative life, we must lose our fear of being wrong," and having overcome this fear before, I am willing to take that chance.

Lee-Ann Liles is currently working at the Bermuda College Library as a library assistant. She has gained background experience at the Bermuda Archives and the Bermuda National Library and will be starting her MLIS in January 2010.


  1. Thanks for this article! It really helps to lend credence to the argument that arts libraries have different classification needs than other traditional collections. I love the "specific, simple and searchable" criteria and hope that all librarians keep that in mind when classifying.

  2. Great article! Love the "three Ss". I'm about to tackle a project not quite unlike yours at a local art museum desiring reclassification of their library collection. Are you able to share any more specific information about the schema you created for the Masterworks Museum? There is such little research published online about the specifics of alternative classifications for art libraries! All the best.