The Biography Classification Conundrum

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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.


Cutter number for individual


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


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


Autobiography, diaries, etc.


Letters, by date of imprint


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


Speeches, etc.


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 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.


The standard subdivision for biographies of individuals

020. 92

Collective biography in library science


Individual biography in library science


Biographies of slaves (both individual and collective)


General and collected biography in medicine


Individual biography in medicine


Collected biography in music


Individual biography in music


Individual biography of filmstars, directors, etc.


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 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 database.

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 database.

Troxel, S. (2001). Message posted to


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

criticism. Retreived from

1 Library of Congress catalog:

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

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