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Sarah Graham

MLIS 7355

Individual Exploration Project

December 9, 2009

                           The Biography Classification Conundrum

        Biographies, a genre which includes autobiographies, memoirs, diaries, and letters, are

the second most circulated items, behind fiction, in library collections that cater to leisure

reading (Spiller, 1988). Biography serves a dual function in the library because it is read by

general audiences for pleasure and used by researchers to study prominent people, their fields of

interest, and time periods. Because of this dual function, arrangement of these materials is a

challenge and stirs continual debate amongst librarians; should they be shelved in their own

section and arranged according to subject or should they be shelved in the nonfiction section and

arranged according to the formal classification schedule used by the library? This paper seeks to

explore how Library of Congress and Dewey Decimal Classifications arrange biographies, why

these classification schedules are problematic for biographical works, how the non-fictional

ambiguity inherent in biographical works complicates their classification, and how libraries can

employ alternative classification techniques to create greater access to biographical works in

their collections.

        The Library of Congress Classification schedule was developed to address the unique

needs of the Library of Congress collection and has since been adopted for used by large

academic and research libraries around the globe as well as some large public libraries.

According to Chan (2007) the primary reasons for the popularity of Library of Congress

Classification among these institutions are “the basic orientation of LLC toward research

libraries, the economic advantage offered by LC cataloging services…, and the increasing ease

with which many libraries can bring up full MARC records online and add them to their own

catalog databases” (p. 375). Classifying works require the identification of the subject content

and principle concepts represented in a work and then the use of provisions of the classification

schedule to accurately and precisely describe the work. The Library of Congress Classification

schedule is divided into main classes, which represent major academic disciplines and are further

divided into subclasses, both of which are presented alphabetically. These subclasses are further

subdivided into numerically represented divisions, thus resulting in an alphanumeric call

number. While subclass CT is the class for biographies, it only applies to general biographies

whose subject is not associated with a specific topic or career since in Library of Congress

Classification biographies are classified with the topic most associated with the life‟s work of the

subject (Oregon State, 2007). The LLC contains a table of general application which allows for

the addition of Cutter numbers throughout the schedule to represent works of biography, thus,

alphabetical classes are assigned to the broad topic of the work, a numeric division is added to

represent a biography associated with the broad topic, and then Cutter numbers are added to

represent the subject and the author of the work (Chan, 2007 & LLC Outline). This application

of Cutter numbers causes biographies to be scattered throughout the schedule, rather than

concentrated in the class CT as one would expect.

.x          Cutter number for individual

            Collected works, by date of imprint. (If entry is open, use the earliest imprint date.)

.xA25           Selected works, by date of imprint. (If entry is open, use the earliest imprint date.)

.xA3-39         Autobiography, diaries, etc.

.xA4            Letters, by date of imprint

.xA41-49        Letters to an individual, by correspondent (A-Z)

.xA5-59         Speeches, etc.

.xA6-Z          Biography and criticism

Figure 1. Library of Congress Biography Table

           For example, the Library of Congress call number for Heartbreak: The Political Memoir

of a Feminist Militant by Andrea Dworkin is HQ1413.D89 A3 20021. The main class H is

assigned for the Social Sciences and the subclass HQ for the family, marriage, and women is

assigned to this work because Dworkin is a feminist theorist and women‟s rights activist. The

division 1413 is assigned to feminist biographies. D89 is the Cutter number assigned to the

biography subject, in this case Andrea Dworkin, and A3 2002, taken from the biography table in

Figure 1, notes that it is an autobiography published in 2002. The notation in the classification

schedule that signifies that this work is an autobiography comes at the end of the call number,

which means that this biography will be shelved with works about feminist activism, not with

other biographies. This classification may be helpful for researchers studying feminism, but not

for patrons browsing memoirs and other biographical works for leisure, which is why Library of

Congress Classification is most often used in large research and academic libraries since it can

    Library of Congress catalog:

more appropriately cater to the needs of their service populations; however, this classification

creates access problems for biographies in public libraries that use LLC.

       The Dewey Decimal Classification is a strictly numeric classification schema that also

organizes material by discipline, much like the Library of Congress, but it only contains ten

classes categorized by field of study. These classes are then subdivided into ten divisions and

each division is divided into ten sections. Items are arranged by discipline, then subject at

various levels of subdivision, geography or period, and then by form. This reliance on class

division by ten and strict arrangement guidelines across classes makes Dewey Decimal

Classification a more predictable, but also more rigid classification schedule than the Library of

Congress. The DDC also incorporates mnemonics into the schedule by using the same numbers

for recurring subjects throughout the schedule. The predictability of this schema makes it better

suited to public and school library collections. Because DDC classifies items according to their

subject and then their format, call numbers consist of a class number, which reflects the main

content of the work, and the item number, which reflects the bibliographic characteristics of the

work (Chan, 2007, pg. 333). In Dewey Decimal Classification, the primary class for biographical

works is 920 for Biography and Genealogy. Within this class, biographies are further subdivided

by persons associated with specific subjects, biographies of heads of state, and biographies about

men and women. Like the Library of Congress, however, Dewey Decimal Classification does not

always classify biographical works in one location. Works in which the subject is associated with

a field of study are classed in that field and Cutter numbers and work marks are added to the call

number to distinguish autobiographies from biographies, arrange works about the same person

together, and then arrange according to main entry, which is usually the author‟s surname.

-9024                                                The standard subdivision for biographies of individuals

020. 92                                              Collective biography in library science

020.921                                              Individual biography in library science

326.92                                               Biographies of slaves (both individual and collective)

610.92                                               General and collected biography in medicine

610.923                                              Individual biography in medicine

780.92                                               Collected biography in music

780.923                                              Individual biography in music

791.43                                               Individual biography of filmstars, directors, etc.

940.919                                              Biography and illustrative material on European War

Figure 2. Sample of DDC-established call numbers for biography; adapted from University Library at

theUniversity of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

          For example, according to this item‟s entry in Worldcat, the Dewey Decimal call number

for Heartbreak: The Political Memoir of a Feminist Militant is 305.42. The work is assigned to

class 300, which in Dewey Decimal Classification is for the social sciences and includes works

on sociology as well as social problems and services. 305.4 is the designated class for

interdisciplinary works about women, which is appropriate for Dworkin since she is a feminist

theorist and activist and 305.42 is devoted to feminist politics and the women‟s movement. The

essential problem with this classification of this item is that it fails to notate the book‟s

biographical nature. Additionally, in libraries using Dewey Decimal Classification, primarily

public libraries, this call number hinders access to the item for patrons who are browsing for

biographies since it classifies the work in the social sciences.

       The primary challenge with classifying biographical works using either the Library of

Congress or Dewey Decimal Classifications is that they break up the biography genre and scatter

works throughout the subject sequence. This is less of a problem in academic and research

libraries where the majority of patrons are using the library to conduct research on various topics,

but it hinders access for those patrons interested primarily in biographical works as they will

have to scour the entire schedule to locate works of interest. In Dewey Decimal Classification,

literary works are classed in the 800s, but due to the rigid hierarchical arrangement guidelines

that require works to be classified by form, works by the same author, but constituting a different

literary form, will be scattered across the class (OCLC, n.d.). For this reason, many libraries have

abandoned Dewey Decimal Classification guidelines for fictional works and instead organize

them alphabetically by genre. Since one of Ranganathan‟s Five Laws of Library Science

instructs librarians to save the time of the reader, it would behoove librarians to construct

biography sections and classify these works similarly to fiction in libraries where biography is

highly circulated.

       One very common suggestion for the treatment of biographies is to separate them from

the nonfiction section of the library, which is particularly useful for patrons who are seeking

biographical works for pleasure reading and wish to browse all biographical holdings at once as

it solves the problem caused by both the Library of Congress and Dewey Decimal Classifications

in which biographies are scattered throughout the library. In a poll taken by the Whakatane

District Libraries in New Zealand about how member libraries handled biographical works, it

was reported that some shelved them alphabetically by subject in a biography class, some

classified all biographies by subject in the traditional manner, some classified special classes at

the subject level and the rest in 920, some had special displays for new biographies and moved

them to subject classification when no longer new, and some used a “Biography” spine label to

make finding biographies within subject sections more user-friendly (Spanake, 2007). The lack

of uniformity amongst libraries in this system underscores the controversy involved in providing

the best access to biographies, but also highlights the many options available to librarians

struggling with this issue.

        The cited advantages for providing users with a separate biography section include:

providing enhanced browsing capability for the genre, providing higher visibility to more

obscure biographies, grouping biographies about the same person or family together, and

allowing reference staff to quickly locate biographies on broad topics, for example, “a woman

who influenced history” (Troxel, 2001). In reviewing how Georgia libraries are classifying

Heartbreak by Andrea Dworkin, I noticed that academic libraries using Library of Congress

Classification are classifying this work in the traditional manner with the social science subject

and adding the subject heading for feminist biography to the catalog record2. In reviewing the

catalog record for this work in the Uncle Remus Regional Library System, which uses Dewey

Decimal Classification, I noticed that of the two holdings, one library classed this work in a

biography section under the subjects surname and the other classed it in 920 for general

biographies, subclassing again by subject‟s surname. Classing this work in the subject class

works well for academic libraries where scholars and students are likely researching a topic

within a field of study and the context for the inclusion of biographies in the collection is likely

for the impact or contribution individuals had in that field. In public library collections, grouping

biographies together creates better access for the higher population of biography readers. In the

 Reviewed catalog record for University of Georgia, Emory University, and Georgia Institute of Technology via

case of the Uncle Remus Regional Library System, both approaches essentially group

biographies together, whether it be in a more recognizable biography section or the classic 920

class for general biographies since both subdivide by subject‟s surname.

        Another challenge in classifying biographical works is that they are not always strictly

nonfiction. For example, Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan by Edmund Morris, The Rebels’

Hour by Lieve Joris, and more recently A Million Little Pieces by James Frey, were all published

as nonfiction biographical works when in fact, they contained many fabricated characters and

events (Manley, 2000 & Reahl, 2008). When a reader selects a biographical work from the

nonfiction section of the library, they expect the work to actually be nonfiction and a major

criterion used by librarians in selecting nonfiction works is the accuracy of the information they

contain (Manley, 2000), a criterion upon which researchers and general readers trust and rely.

Due to this controversy, some publishers are taking a more careful eye to biographical

manuscripts while others suggest including a broad spectrum of subdivisions in the genre to

include “literary reportage” among other veiled attempts to disguise the disingenuousness of

pseudo-biographical works (Deahl, 2008), which would compromise the integrity of the

nonfiction section of the library. Manley (2000), in the amusingly titled Catalogers, Cast Off

Your Shackles, implores librarians to fight back with creative classification as they are the

readers‟ last line of defense against literary deceit.

        In order to address the possible factual ambiguity of biographical works and maintain the

trust of patrons, librarians have an obligation to review the accuracy of these publications and

either reclassify them to a different genre or add subject headings and scope notes to the catalog

records that more accurately define the work. In the case of Dutch, Manley (2000) goes so far as

to argue that it should be classified as a work of historical fiction and not biography. Of all the

PINES member libraries, only one classes this work in fiction while all the others class it in

biography or nonfiction; however, there is a note in the MARC record stating that the work

contains “genuine and fictional characters”. Even though The Rebels’ Hour was originally

published as nonfiction, the Gwinnett County Public Library System classifies it in fiction, the

University of Georgia classes it in historical fiction, and both MARC records contain subject

headings for fiction. A Million Little Pieces, the most notorious pseudo-biographical work of

them all, is classed in nonfiction and biography in every PINES member library that owns the

first printing, but the MARC record contains a note field that states:

       “In response to allegations published in The Smoking Gun Web site that the author had

       fabricated many of the facts and experiences described in the book, later printings include

       an insert in which the publisher states that „Memoir is a personal history whose aim is to

       illuminate, by way of example, events and issues of broader social consequence. By

       definition, it is highly personal. In the case of Mr. Frey, we decided 'A Million Little

       Pieces' was his story, told in his own way, and he represented to us that his version of

       events was true to his recollections. Recent accusations against him notwithstanding, the

       power of the overall reading experience is such that the book remains a deeply inspiring

       and redemptive story for millions of readers."

       The traditional schedules of Library of Congress and Dewey Decimal Classification may

suit research and academic libraries well; however, in public libraries where biography

circulation is high and in cases where biographical works are more subjective, or even fabricated,

than factual, the best solution could be to separate these works from the nonfiction section.

Furthermore, adding creative catalog notes where appropriate or taking the path less traveled to

completely reclassify dubious biographical works can maintain the integrity of the library and its

nonfiction section. Even thought the controversy wages on, the bottom line with the

classification of biographical works is that librarians need to choose the option that best serves

the access needs of their service population and represents works accurately and fairly.


Chan, L. M. (2007). Cataloging and classification: An introduction. Lanham, MD: The

       Scarecrow Press.

Deahl, R. (2008). Call it nonfiction…sort of. Publishers Weekly, 255(12), 12-13. Retrieved from

       Library, Information Science & Technology Abstracts with Full Text database.

Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Regan. Georgia PINES Catalog. Retrieved from



Heartbreak: The Political Memoir of a Feminist Militant. (n.d.). In WorldCat. Retrieved via

       Valdosta State University subscription.

Library of Congress. (n.d.). Library of Congress Classification outline. Retrieved from

Manley, W. (2000). Catalogers, cast off your shackles. American Libraries, 31(2), 104.

       Retrieved from Library, Information Science & Technology Abstracts with Full Text


Million Little Pieces. Georgia PINES catalog. Retrieved from



Online Computer Library Center. (n.d.). Introduction to Dewey Decimal Classification.

       Retrieved from

Oregon State University. (2007). Biography. [PowerPoint slides]. Retrieved from


Rebels‟ Hour. Gwinnett County Public Library. Retrieved from



Rebels‟ Hour. University of Georgia Library Catalog. Retrieved from







Spanhake, C. (2007, January 4). Classification of biographies using DDC-22- Summary of

       responses. Retrieved from


Spiller, D. (1988). A strategy for biography provision in public libraries. Library Review

       (Glasgow, Scotland), 37(1), Retrieved from Library Literature & Information Science


Troxel, S. (2001). Message posted to


University Library at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. (n.d.). Biography and

       criticism. Retreived from

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