James A. Johnson, the first warden of Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary, was a strict disciplinarian. His solution to prison violence was rigid adherence to Golden Rules, including one which dictated, to the inch, the location of shaving brushes within each cell. “Old Saltwater”, as he was known, was popular with the inmates. He he ate with them, unguarded.

Alcatraz inherited the library of the military citadel which had formerly stood on the island. In 1937, at Johnson’s instigation, new books were purchased, and a printed catalogue compiled. Each new prisoner received a copy of the catalogue on arrival.

Inmates were not allowed to enter the library. They ordered reading material using request slips placed, at breakfast time, in a box near the dining hall. Three standard books, and up to twelve textbooks, could be borrowed. The library was popular – the average monthly circulation was 8.2 books per prisoner in 1937. The prison chaplain excised all references to sex, crime, and violence.

Did personal ownership of a catalogue, or selection solely by means of it, make the prisoners keener readers? It’s a quaint idea. A Federal Bureau of Prisons booklet, published in 1960, noted that “these men read more serious literature than does the ordinary person in the community. Philosophers such as Kant, Schopenhauer, and Hegel, etc. are especially popular.”

That’s the same Hegel who characterized history as a “butcher’s block”. The Schopenhauer who wrote, in detail, about crime and punishment in The World as Will and Idea. And the Kant whose Lectures on Ethics and his Metaphysics of Morals contain discussions of what the philosopher calls “unnatural and unmentionable vices”. Perhaps the chaplain wasn’t too hot on philosophy. Good cataloguing or botched censorship? Or a bit of both? Take your pick.


Underused library word no. 243.

The Oxford English dictionary defines “Alveary” as “1a: ‘A repository, esp. of knowledge or information. Originally as the name of a dictionary encompassing several languages… It may be used Metaphorically for… a Library full of Books.’ 1b. ‘A beehive. Also: the location where a beehive stands; an apiary. Now rare.'”

In mythology and heraldry, beehives stand for industry and co-operation. In Freemasonary, and in the Mormon Church, they are used as a symbolic caution against intellectual laziness. Richard FoxeLouis McNeice, and Sarah Thomas, among others, have deployed them as metaphors for libraries. It is no accident that the hexagonal galleries, walls, and bookshelves of Borges’ Library of Babel reflect a beehive’s internal architecture.

Natural beehives are quite different from the artificial kind. But they too have a certain structure. Honey is stored in the upper part of the comb. Then come rows of pollen-storage cells, then worker-brood cells, then drone-brood cells. Queen cells are usually located on the lower edge of the comb.

Artificial beehives seek to bring greater order and efficiency to honey production and storage by disturbing this verticality. Humans have been building artificial beehives since antiquity, but it wasn’t until the nineteenth century that recognizably modern designs were used. Today there are two main types – the Langstroth hive and the top-bar hive.

Two main systems, both developed in the nineteenth century? Attempts to bring order to the quiet chaos of the natural world? Sounds a lot like library classification. It seems that the metaphor can be pushed further still.


Even in rural Devon there is no escape from taxonomy.

The donkeys of Sidmouth’s Sanctuary are gathered together in fields and barns according to their prior histories, vision (or lack thereof), podiatric or respiratory problems and, in the case of Poitou donkeys, breed.  They are described by their place of origin, sex, age, and temperament. They all have names. And they are classified, like stars and George Perec’s books, by colour. Each animal has one or more large plastic collars about its neck. The bands come in different shades, offering a quick signpost for the sanctuary’s workers (many of them volunteers) to individual dietary and medical requirements. It’s a quick and clever way to make sure that each donkey gets the right meal and medicine.

Throughout history donkeys have been symbols of determination, intelligence (and stupidity), strength, peace, humility and versatility. The pregnant Mary was carried upon one. Christ entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday on a donkey’s back. Midas, and the Irish king Breas, had donkey’s ears in their respective legends (Sarah Morris, a classicist at UCLA, has argued that donkey’s ears were a royal attribute in Bronze Age Anatolia). But donkeys also provide metaphors for questions in classification, such as those related to:

Definition: Donkeys provided a test case in a recent zoological controversy over whether domesticated and wild animals ought to be given different formal taxonomic descriptions.

Etymology: ‘Donkey’ is one of the relatively small number of English words (in excellent company alongside curmudgeon, transmogrify, pixie, strawberry and skedaddle) whose etymological origins are unknown or unclear.

Substitution: Until the eighteenth century, donkeys were referred to as asses. Modern usage has replaced a previously popular synonym homophonic with an anatomical term used as a term of abuse, just as roosters were once cocks, and rabbits coneys.


A sketch by British comedians The Two Ronnies explores the comic potential of a public library’s colour-based classification scheme. But the idea is not so absurd. Arrangement by colour is, in private libraries at least, an established way of shelving one’s books.

Stars, too, can be arranged by colour. Under the Morgan-Keenan system, the classification most commonly used by stellar astronomers, our sun is a G2V, with translates as “a ‘yellow’ two tenths towards ‘orange’ main-sequence star”. Library classifications are not arbitrary, and neither are stellar ones. As library classmarks provide a shorthand for bibliographical content, Morgan-Keenan colours designate spectral class, which describes the ionization of its photosphere, itself a measure of a star’s temperature.

Most stars are classified using the letters O, B, A, F, G, K, and M, with O stars the hottest and M the coolest. O stars are called ‘blue’, B stars ‘blue-white’, A stars ‘white’, F stars ‘yellow-white’, G stars ‘yellow’, K stars ‘orange’, and M stars ‘red’. A number indicates tenths of the range between two successive classes, and the Roman numerals I to VII the star’s luminosity, which is indicative of its size.

Library classification tends to evolve over time to reflect socio-political changes. Stellar classification remains fixed, though the objects themselves slide through the scheme, over billions of years, before falling out altogether. Stellar classification has hard boundaries, and at the end of a star’s life, the remnants (neutron stars, black holes, and exotic stars), though still astronomical objects, can no longer be schematically described.


‘Behind every utopia there is always some great taxonomic design: a place for each thing and each thing in its place.’

I’m guilty of autobiography-by-Venn-diagram on social media platforms. List enough character traits, interests, activities, likes and loves, and one’s true self must stand unique at the intersection of each circle, right? I’m not alone in assuming this – it’s a common tendency among librarians, revealing our desire to reduce the world to tidy lists, and demonstrating an awkward truth about how close the profession comes to self-parody.

George Perec also worked in a library, and true to form, was very fond of cats. But Perec’s Venn diagram would be as inimitable as his literary style. He was a paratrooper, a cruciverbalist, and an obsessive maker-of-lists. A holocaust orphan, an eponym of an astronomical object, and an archivist too.

Perec is famed for his experimental novels and eclectic essays. Few realize that he also had a day job, sorting records at a medical research library, even at the height of his fame. Perhaps the routine banality was an escape from literary absurdity, or an anvil for his hobby, for Perec was an informal classificationist of some significance. His ‘Notes brèves sur ľart et la manière de ranges ses livres’ (‘Brief notes on the art and manner of arranging one’s books‘) is both a light-hearted and a deeply intellectual look at a perennial problem – how to best arrange one’s private library?

The longer Penser/Classer (Think/Classify, or the inadequate Thoughts of Sorts, in Bellos’ recent translation) imagines humanity’s attempts at ordering the world as farce. Perec’s lack of rigour and preference for verbal play over analysis does not endear him to many classificationists. But in confessing his profound bafflement as to how we make sense of existence, his meta-classification unveils the quixoticism of our attempts to codify the quicksilver of nature. ‘Taxonomy,’ he confesses ‘can make your head spin.’


In the mid-17th century Athanasius Kircher recorded a description given by a Swiss government official of a dragon he had sighted in the Alps: ‘Its wings were agitated with much celerity; its body was long as well as its tail and neck. Its head was that of a serpent with teeth, and when it was flying, sparks were coming out of it like the embers thrown by an incandescent iron when struck by smiths on an anvil.’ The cracking of glaciers may have provoked beliefs in winged monsters among uneducated villagers. The sober prefect’s account defied Kircher’s attempts at explanation.

Kircher, a German Jesuit, was known as ‘The Master of 100 Arts’. Johann Jakob Scheuchzer, a near-contemporary Swiss scholar, had more focused interests. A Fellow of the Royal Society, compiler of the 18th century’s definitive maps of the Alps, and one of the fathers of paleobiology, he was no more inclined to believe in tall tales, His Itinera Alpina Tria, an account of the journeys he made between 1702 and 1704, was sponsored by Isaac Newton and Hans Sloane.

But a single chapter, his catalogue of Alpine dragons, meant that no early-modern naturalist could take Scheuchzer seriously. Alongside eye-witness reports he provided a complex taxonomy of dragon subspecies, among them ‘winged, wingless, without feet and many footed’, similar to the categories used in Chinese mythology. J.R.R. Tolkien probably drew upon Scheuchzer’s accounts when designing his own taxonomic system for dragons. Tolkien classified according to locomotion and fire-breathing. His dragons, unlike Tolkien’s cosy feudalism, also evolve – winged dragons appear in later eras than wingless ones. What unifies all of Tolkien’s dragons is a love of gold.


One of the ‘Principles’ of RDA is ‘Uniformity’ (RDA RDA’s Introduction provides a self-referential definition, but we don’t really need it – the idea is easy to understand. Uniformity has always been an aim of cataloguing practice – we try both to make our bibliographical records internally consistent and replicate the same principles of description across them. MARC hampers the former aim, but AACR2, by deferring to the Chicago Manual of Style and Webster’s New International Dictionary, led to a long-desired terminological grounding and stylistic universality.

RDA, notoriously, defers to the cataloguer’s judgment and the convenience of the user. It recognizes the fact of local policy definitions, and it authorizes them: ‘If the agency creating the data has established in-house guidelines for capitalization, punctuation, numerals, symbols, abbreviations, etc., or has designated a published style manual, etc…. as its preferred guide, use those guidelines or that style manual in the place of the instructions given under 1.7.2 – 1.7.9 and in the appendices.’ RDA offers itself as a style guide while simultaneously inciting cataloguers to defy it.

In other words, anything goes. Local policies should only be necessary to resolve ambiguities. The LCRIs were good at that when it came to AACR2. But attempts to cleanse the catalogue of grammatical ugliness, the stylistic preferences of other nations, abbreviations unfamiliar to the man on the Clapham Omnibus, or personal peeves, are all roads to hell. The conceit of cataloguers, cataloguing divisions, and the scribes of RDA to know more about style than the writers of the world’s most definitive style guide is astounding. And it is the enemy of uniformity.