Thursday, June 22, 2006

A Great 19th Century American Library Catalog

Every so often a book will give us a glimpse of an important change in the way we do or see things. Such is the case with Charles Ammi Cutter's "Catalogue of the Library of the Boston Athenaeum 1807-1871", published in Boston between 1874 and 1882.

Cutter [1837-1903], a founding member of the American Library Association, was an important influence on modern librarianship and cataloging. He graduated third in his class at Harvard at age 18, spent several years cataloging the Harvard library, and married Sarah Appleton, one of the first female library assistants in the Harvard cataloguing department.

The Boston Athenaeum was a leading literary and artistic society in the 19th century, and its library contained a wide breadth of important material on American art, history and literature.

When Cutter became the Librarian of the Boston Athenaeum he was faced with the daunting task of cataloging its quarter-of-a-million volumes, a project that would eventually take almost a decade. Cutter's approach, which was designed to be most helpful to the patron looking for books (instead of the librarian or cataloguer organizing them) would be expanded upon in his "Rules for a Dictionary Catalog", and would become a cornerstone of modern Library Science. Throughout his career at the Athenaeum and as a President of the ALA and editor of its Journal, Cutter would be concerned with making the library more useful to patrons, especially those who needed it to further their educations and place in life.

After he left the Athenaeum and was Librarian of the Forbes Library in Northampton, Massachusetts, Cutter would write- "We are to buy the best books... Not the best book for the librarian, nor for the book committee, nor for the self-educated book committee outside the library, nor for the shelves (to keep them warm by never leaving them); but the best books to satisfy our clients for amusement and knowledge and mental stimulus and spiritual inspiration. The library should be a practical thing to be used, not an ideal to be admired."

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