On Shelfmarks, and why they are important

As our new intake of students are finding out, shelf-marking at OIL is not always straightforward. This is an historical problem, and not one confined just to our library – for an overview of the situation at the Bodleian, I recommend the excellent Bodleian press-marks in relation to classification by G.W. Wheeler, (shelf mark – 2960 d. Oxf. 1.13) written in 1916 but still a valuable source for anyone wishing to understand why the systems used by the Library are so complicated.

But I digress. At OIL the problem arises mostly from the fact that our books have arrived here from several different sources and are subsequently classified in several different ways. This is reflected in the labelling systems we use, for example the collection upstairs contains black labels made of tape with white numbers, which follow a loose version of the Library of Congress Classification, and also the white-labelled books which follow the “Oxford” version of the Library of Congress Classification, developed for use by the Bodleian and other libraries. (There are many books on this subject on SOLO; but believe me, it’s not really that important that readers know how it works in any detail).

In the Library there are also (deep breath) books from the former Oriental Reading Room, reference books from sections including those downstairs, and in the basement there are several more schemes in use including the Hebrew section, numerical classification for the Syriac and other small collections, as well as the Indian Institute books which use their own scheme (which was designed to be used in the building which just finished being the History Faculty Library).

Most of the abovementioned are fairly easy for us to tell apart, and therefore when someone asks us about something from the basement we can usually say where it will be with some authority.

Where the confusion arises is with the ground floor collections, which mirror each other fairly broadly, especially in large sections like BP and PJ. It is VERY IMPORTANT when asking us about these that readers write down the whole shelf mark!! I know it’s a pain, and they’re long, and sometimes they make no sense, but if we’re given a shelf mark that’s written “PJ 6416… [I lost interest here]” we can’t give you accurate information about where the book is. We WANT to help, but we need more than just the first two elements of the shelf mark if we are going to do so.

There is also an ongoing programme of reclassification taking place, which means that the books with the black labels are gradually being relabelled and added to the new LC section. At the moment the BPs are being done, and all new books are also being added to LC.

In short, do feel free to ask us if you can’t find something, but PLEASE try to give us as much information as possible!

Thank you.

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